New Vision (Kampala)

16 January 2013

Uganda: Mzee Mulwana Leaves a Legacy of Exemplary Leadership

opinion

Vision Group CEO Robert Kabushenga pays tribute to the man he respected as mentor

Mzee James Mulwana has left us. He passed on in the early hours of Tuesday. When someone dies, it is sad and for those that are close to the deceased, it comes with a lot of grief. Yet Mzee Mulwana leaves us, having truly accomplished his life's mission.

In the pantheon of leaders, he has truly cemented his place. He leaves a rich legacy of leadership having pioneered local manufacturing, driven private sector growth and mentored a multitude of business leaders. He has played his social role in culture and the church, been an invaluable source of wisdom, organised a smooth transition of his family business to his children and then left without complaint.

One of Mzee Mulwana's passions was to see to it that well-trained and truly deserving Ugandan professionals in the corporate world are given high levels of responsibility.

He believed that Ugandans are just as capable as expatriates, if not better at running corporate businesses. He, therefore, made it his personal mission to see to it that more Ugandans were given senior jobs.

His most recent accomplishment was to drive the appointment of Herman Kasekende as the first Ugandan CEO of Standard Chartered Bank in its 100-year history. He is also responsible for such corporate luminaries as Dr. Simon Kagugube, Dr. William Kalema, Aga Sekalala Jnr, Baker Magunda, Hilary Obonyo, Sarah Walusimbi and, of course, his children Barbara and Geoffrey. I am also one of the beneficiaries of this generosity.

In late September 2006, I was asked to assume the responsibility of running Vision Group. Frankly, I was ill-prepared for the task. To make matters even more complicated for me, this was a company that had been run so well, it was held out as a successful business model for other parastatals and business enterprises in Uganda.

Our competitors did not help matters. They started a media celebration of our impending collapse. They told the public that New Vision was finished now that William Pike was gone and replaced by an NRM propagandist. In all of this I needed to figure out which way to go. I was sure of only one thing, I did not want to fail. I began a desperate search for wisdom, which took me to Mzee Mulwana's office.

I have been friends with his daughter Barbara for some years and in fact she considers me a young brother. So I picked the phone and called her. I explained my crisis of confidence and asked her to put in a kind word for me for an appointment with the old man.

That was in the morning. She called back a little later to say that Mzee Mulwana would see me that afternoon in his office at 2:30pm.

I was there on the dot. He received me very graciously and gave me the most valuable 45 minutes any human being has ever given me. At absolutely no cost. The lessons of that afternoon laid the foundation for our subsequent run of success.

It is a pity he could not come to witness the outcome of his advice when in 2010 we celebrated the successful implementation of our new investments as a true multimedia company. He was out of the country.

So what did Mzee Mulwana teach me? To work three times as hard as my predecessor if I am to earn half his success.

That it is essential to build, work with and through teams. Be wary of praise singers and those who tell you only good things. Listen adequately and effectively. My presence in the company should add value to the business.

The business has to be profitable or at least break even. A good relationship with the Board Chairman is absolutely critical for the success of the business.

The CEO is the main driver of the business and must project a firm and confident persona. Innovation is the responsibility of management. And so on. But the others were personal to me so I will not share.

After the meeting, I rushed back to office and downloaded the lessons into a notebook. I still have it with me and I revise it often. Later he would continue to be a positive critic when he thought I was veering off track. The biggest personal endorsement was when he insisted that I play a particular role in the CHOGM Business Forum. It was a statement of his personal confidence in my abilities. I am forever grateful.

Early one evening in August 2009, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Bulange, a very humble neighbourhood, north of Kampala. At about 9:00pm the next day, I got a call from Barbara who was asking for directions to the place. I was shocked to see Barbara walk in with her father Mzee James Mulwana.

Both of them were still in their business suits, but with shoes fully caked with mud! It had rained all afternoon and so the path to home was a mess. I had no words.

A whole Mulwana (the Barbara half was already more than a bargain) had come to share in our grief?! It was unbelievable. And he just sat there as if an ordinary mourner. Yet he stayed with us long enough for everyone to realise that this was no ordinary man.

Mzee James Mulwana, thank you for the power of example of a life lived in full, a life of enterprise, wisdom, kindness, honesty, patriotism, generosity, humility, politeness, spirituality and above all OBUNTU BULAMU (humanity). Rest in peace.

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