The Oakseed Executive Leadership Course from INT Uganda

Yesterday (13th December 2020) marked – in a purely symbolic sense – the end of a journey I started in January of this year. That journey was a course called the Oakseed Executive Leadership Course (OSELC) offered by the Institute for National Transformation (INT) – Uganda. It was the symbolic end not only because I have outstanding assignments and a project to do but because, if there’s any lesson I’ve learnt from participating in the course, it is that once you start the course, it never ends. What that means is the course isn’t a mere set of lectures that you go for in order to get another certificate for your CV. Not at all. Rather, it is designed to wake the slumbering giant within and never let him/her/it go to sleep again. And so, going forward, nearly everything I do will be guided by the lessons learnt and resolutions made during the course. In that sense, the course has lived up to the name of the Institute for me in that it has been truly transformational. Let me try to explain why – starting from the beginning.

The course was recommended to me in late 2019 by my boss at Yo Uganda having received a positive report about it from another colleague at work. Now, close friends and associates know that I have previously been a bit skeptical about “paid adult learning” in the modern era. My attitude was partly because of previous experiences with numerous corporate training workshops/courses that only served as a break from regular scheduled work but had minimal impact otherwise and also partly because I believe that with internet access, one can do all the learning they actually need without necessarily paying for it or sitting in a classroom. (My attitude has since changed though – in no small measure due to my OSELC experience). Anyway, on being briefed about it, I sought the opinion of the colleague that had done it and she was extremely positive about it. Then I checked out the details of the course on the website and got in touch with the Institute for further information. I got sold almost immediately and decided to book a slot in the next intake which was starting in January 2020.

So why did I get hooked? The reason is rather simple – from the literature about the course, it was clear their mission was to, among other things, train people to do something, something tangible, within their community/country to change the prevailing state of affairs. Everyone that is close to me knows that away from my ICT/engineering professional life, I am passionate about social justice and governance issues. In fact, just following my twitter feed would probably make one think that that is my life’s work. I detest injustice and bad governance and I strongly believe that we can do better as a country and indeed as a continent. But despite being quite outspoken about these issues within my circles, I have not actually done much in a practical sense to try and change things in that area. And so, I viewed the course as the perfect place to receive the training and encouragement and push to start walking the talk. To be honest, I needed little convincing after seeing that one of the books on the curriculum was Lee Kuan Yew’s “From Third World to First World“. I must confess I have been obsessed with the story of Singapore for a long time and so that did it for me.

The OSELC course is very interesting and unique in a number of ways. First of all, it is clear that it is not about “academics”. This much can be gleaned from the course tagline: “Developing values-based, no-excuse leaders“. If you are the kind of person that delights in doing exams and receiving glowing assessments, you may be disappointed. Rather, it is more about getting you to appreciate the challenges we face as a nation and then getting you to understand that these challenges won’t solve themselves and if you truly care about them, you must do something. The entire course is designed to, first of all, stir up the belief that one can do something – at the very least, more than you are currently doing – to change the status quo in whatever field you are most passionate above. These fields, referred to as spheres of influence, correspond to the 7 mountains in the book The Seven Mountain Prophecy by Johnny Enlow and they are: Media, Government (Politics & Governance), Education, Economy (Business), Religion, Celebration (Culture, Entertainment & the Arts) and Family (Social). Secondly and more importantly, the course then pushes you to prove to yourself that you can actually go ahead and do that that you now believe you can do. One of the most interesting things about the course is how we, the students, pushed ourselves beyond what we thought we could do especially during the last module. Note that the course is attended by professionals, many of whom are relatively senior in their fields and therefore have little to prove to anyone. It was therefore quite surprising to see that we could get into the groove in such a committed fashion.

In terms of structure, the course comprises 6 modules each of which is supposed to be covered over one month. The first 5 modules consists of one weekend of lectures and movies (Saturday and Sunday) with the rest of the month dedicated to various assignments. These assignments involve lots of reading as well as practical individual and group projects. The projects are developed over the course of the modules with the expectation that they will then be implemented in an appropriate time period after the course. The sixth module is a 4-day residential session named “History Makers Training – HMT” and it is – in a word – brutal. The amount of work covered during the 4 day period is easily equivalent to the amount of work that would otherwise take at least a month to accomplish. Under normal circumstances therefore, the course takes 6 months to complete. Unfortunately, given the unprecedented events of this year, the course was disrupted and we ended up doing Modules 4 and 5 virtually after a couple of months delay and then Module 6 – HMT – in December (virtually as well). The following is the list of Modules and a list of lectures covered in each:

  1. Module 1: Making a Case for Paradigm shift
    • Lectures: Sixty years of African Independence – an Odyssey, The Crisis of Leadership in Africa – Observations of Lee Kuan Yew, Dreams from Nations’ Founding Fathers, The Hunter and Farmer Leadership Paradigms and their Implications, Global Trends
  2. Module 2: Creating an Enabling Environment
    • Lectures: God’s Quality Management System, The Singapore Story: The Role of Quality Management Standards, The Good to Great Framework for National Development, Packaging of Burdens as Vehicles for National Transformation Lecture, Vision 2040 – Uganda, The Rule of Law
  3. Module 3: Becoming a Transformational Leader
    • Lectures: Transformational versus Transactional Leaders, The Family and Community Development, Leadership Positioning: Understanding the Funnel of Success, The Laws of Mentorship, The Hedgehog Concept: Understanding it for National Development, Value Systems, Integrity, Work Ethic and Dignity of Labour
  4. Module 4: Developing Soft Skills
    • Lectures: Leadership Personalities and People Skills, Delegation and People Involvement, Conflict Management, Lobbying and Advocacy, Facing Brutal Facts and the Stockdale Paradox, Communication and Media
  5. Module 5: Infrastructural Systems
    • Lectures: Education and Human Resource Development, Innovation, Research and Development, Quality Financial Systems, Physical Infrastructure, The Elite and National Development
  6. Module 6 – History Makers Training:
    • Lectures: No Excuse Leadership, Using Systems to Rebuild our World, Put First Things First, The Gospel of the Kingdom, The Sin of Irresponsibility, Sowing the Seed of Sons, Be a Person of Value, Power of Conversion and Fighting Indiscipline in Your Life

The books covered over the course of the six modules include: State of Africa by Martin Meredith, Buy the Future by Mensa Otabil, Good to Great by Jim Collins, From Third World to First World-The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew, Church Shift by Sunday Adelaja, The Seven Mountain Prophecy by Johnny Enlow and The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. As you can see, these are a quite a lot more books than the typical Ugandan is accustomed to reading in 6 months (which is one of the tragedies of our nation) of which some are absolutely massive. In addition, we watched a number of movies including biographical documentaries of Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatma Gandhi among others.

The lecturers include a cast of luminaries including Ms. Harriet O’City (the Institutes Executive Director), Dr. James Magara (one of the Institute’s founders), Richard Lutalo, Fred Kyaka Gyaviira, Paul Michael Bukenya, Daniel Ruhweza, Dr. Monica Musenero, Ms. Jennifer Okaka, Hon Dr. Benson Obua-Ogwal, Robert Mutyaba and the founder of INT, Professor Vincent Anigbogu.

These are all top-quality minds and, needless to say, the lectures were deeply insightful with enough interactivity to spark lively, illuminating and at times quite passionate discussions.

Eventually, each student is expected to select their sphere of interest and design a project to do therein. My chosen sphere was Governance and my initial project idea was to build an online forum for political discourse that would create a space for deeper discussion of issues without the hyper-partisan emotions and clouding of issues that one tends to see on social media for instance. Along the way however, I was convinced that I was aiming too low and that my project wasn’t representative of the ambition and desire to change my community that the course had stirred in me. I think that alone is a great indicator of the impact the course had on me. I have decided to aim higher, to do much bigger things. More about this later.

Now that I and the rest of my cohort have come to the (symbolic) end of the course, what is my take on it? What did I enjoy and what did I not like about it? More importantly, would I recommend it?

I definitely enjoyed the course – it was challenging, eye-opening and very inspirational. Along the way, I met wonderful people from both the cohort (fellow students) as well as the lecturers and I suspect that the networking initiated during the course will be of lifetime value. I loved most of the course content and the books were terrific too. I personally believe that every Ugandan should read State of Africa, Buy the Future and From Third World to First World but the others are also excellent reads. Not all was rosy of course and one of the things I didn’t like was the delayed assessment of assignments which didn’t quite match the Institute’s brand image (and was a bit disheartening given the level of effort we put into doing them). However, along the way, it dawned on me that doing the assignments was not the most important thing in the course. No. What was critical was whether anything was changing within from a mindset and outlook perspective. And the answer to whether that was happening was a definite “YES”. Besides, once the pandemic set in, I too was unable to keep up with the assignments because of other pressing matters. But the seed that had been planted was already in place, growing. After all, the idea behind the name “Oakseed” is to symbolize that the course is meant to turn you into a seed that germinates, flourishes and grows into a great tree out there in the community beyond the classroom.

Then there were debates about our lack of progress as a country and indeed continent and what needs to be done. I think we’re not having enough of these at every level of society which is a pity.

Finally, there was the last module that ended yesterday – the History Makers Training. This is an intensive bootcamp that appears to borrow techniques from military training (one of the course materials is a video on US Navy Seals training!). Unfortunately or fortunately for us, it had to be done virtually this year because of the prevailing pandemic conditions. Despite the online format, it was still pretty intense and it pushed us to close to our physical limits. How – one may ask? Simple – by overwhelming us with huge amounts of work with strict deadlines that we were compelled to meet. It may sound simple – and most of us thought it would be – but it was brutal. We basically got through the three days on less than 9 hours sleep in total i.e. 3 per day. It was intense but highly enjoyable and we all appreciated how far one’s mind can push the body.

One small detail that I will always remember is a couple of questions regarding how we thought those around us perceive us (in terms of human qualities) and what kind of obituaries would be written about us. Rather than think through this, I sent the questions to my close family and a couple of friends and the responses got me all teary-eyed. Why don’t we tell each other these things before our obituaries are written? In case you want to repeat this exercise with your family/friends, here is the relevant snippet:

What am I best known for? How do people define me? Write 10 qualities which other people see in you.

So would I recommend the course? Absolutely. If you feel you need a spark to inspire you to do something about the state of affairs in your community or country, it is likely that this course will provide it and then some. There are however two issues to consider. First of all, the course cost is UGX. 600,000 per module which works out to a total of UGX. 3,600,000 for the 6 month course. This is obviously not cheap and so many may find it unaffordable. The target market for the course is middle to senior management leaders from both the private and public sector. The second issue is a bit controversial – you may have already noticed by this point that the course is inspired by a Christian worldview and so a lot of the content is based on Biblical principles and teachings. As a practising Christian, that was obviously not a problem for me but I know that it may be for some. I have a number of associates for whom this would probably be a problem and so it is my duty to point it out. That said, I must also say that the key lessons learnt especially about leadership and motivation to change things, are essentially universally applicable regardless of one’s faith (or lack of the same).

About the Institute for National Transformation (INT) and OSELC: