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Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Leadership Lessons from the UNITECH Saga

Speech delivered for the Voice Inc 1st "Nation Builder Conference", Waigani, 15-21 January.

Leadership Lessons from the UNITECH saga: how the students did it.

(750 words – 4 minutes)
UNITECH students peacefully demonstrating in the provinces

The UNITECH saga between 2012-2014, is one of the few cases in which a PNG government had to concede completely to the demands of a civil society, in this case the student movement. An insightful article about the student movement was published in Times Higher Education, in the middle of the crisis. A number of important lessons can be learned from the student movement on how to influence public policy through peaceful and democratic activism.

Regrettably, not everybody has learned these lessons, and today some are still trying to make life difficult for the UNITECH students and its new leadership team. In 2014, for example, some of these same people managed surreptitiously, without consultation to abolish the autonomy of University Councils in the new Higher Education Act. Unsurprisingly, recently some of these university councils appealed to the government to have the offending article 109 repealed. No answer is expected any time soon. A more recent challenge is the withdrawal of HECAS scholarship money for the students. We met with the Minister of higher education to ask him to fund the scholarships. Promises were made, but no answer was received.

Let's examine what we can learn from recent history. In 2012, I initiated a movement for transparent and effective leadership at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (UNITECH) by reaching out to staff and students. They have been unwavering in their support for these objectives. The essence of leadership is to rally support behind a shared vision. The time was ripe at UNITECH for a profound transformation, since the preceding regime had only benefited very few.

In this process, individuals around me exhibit courageous leaderships and accomplished extraordinary feats. Despite impossible odds, misinformation, chaos, and constant pressure, they managed to shape the events around them. Today, I want to honour these individuals. After all, leadership is allowing the leaders around you to act. Leading is a verb, an action, not a philosophy. Leadership emerges during difficult situations or crisis. Fair weather leadership is easy, but the true test comes when things get tough.

From the beginning, I have stood up against corruption, and mismanagement. I stuck to saying and doing what is right, and refusing to concede to pressures to pay or receive bribes. I refused to play along, because that is not how I was raised, and that is not who I am.

As a result of my actions, a handful of detractors forced me into exile in 2013. Regrettably, they were given ample opportunity to influence decisions, and access to the highest levels of government. In the process, they spread slanderous lies about me in the newspapers and social media, and unlawfully and unsuccessfully tried to dismiss me. Subsequently, I was forced to defend myself by going to the courts, and the whole matter became very public. Ironically, their slander also committed me more strongly to return so that I could clear my name through my actions.

I note the importance of the first-follower for any movement. For those not familiar with the concept, watch this amusing video: lone nut + first follower = a movement. I was the lone nut and the misfit in the old regime at the University. Sir Nagora Bogan, the new Chancellor was my first follower, thus blessing my actions and showing others how to follow. Subsequently, he quickly transitioned from a leadership role behind to the screens, and during 2014 provided very decisive and public type of leadership. Now of course he is the main strategic leader of the university, and I am his follower.

The first lesson from the UNITECH saga, is that a leadership revolution in PNG has already taken place among the younger generations, made possible by social media. At UNITECH, for example, we can see the role of the SRC president and his team has completely changed. Student leaders are now much better communicators and listeners. They debate publicly their positions, showing their passion and individuality, They act as mediators between different group of stakeholders, and don't pretend to have all the answers. They learn by doing. And most importantly, they are tremendously quick and effective by harnessing and leveraging the power of social media.

Before leaders worked anonymously behind the screens and would pop out of nowhere. I call this ambush leadership, which in the PNG context can not be underestimated. It has been a survival strategy, but it is ultimately ineffective because it only produces leaders for a day.

As a university, we want to develop this new type of more transparent and adaptive leadership. Our mission as a university is to contribute to a knowledge based society, and the type of leadership that requires is different. In a knowledge based society where citizens have access to social media traditional forms of leadership were be replaced by a more individual, informed, networked, and adaptive type of leadership.

Secondly, I would like to give 4 examples of spontaneously emerging leadership by two student leaders, an individual student, and a staff member.

Some of these PNG leaders were not in formal leadership positions. In fact, their actions were born because of the lack of leadership by those acting in leadership position, the Acting Management of the University, called by some “the actors”. Despite their lack of formal position, these true leaders were nevertheless able to shape events around them, and achieve the outcomes they wanted.

1- The first example is Joe Kaowai, the 2012 SRC president, who still exhibited a traditional and obstinate type of leadership. This was necessary to get the student movement started. It was more sophisticated than it seemed however. What I found impressive is that he would never immediately announce his decision, but rather obtain advise. It was also very effective, particularly in keeping the student movement united and preventing the student radicals from derailing the movement. In this period, social media were not used intensively, students mostly used text messages.

2- The second example, is a student who spontaneously rented a 25 seater in Port Moresby and with a few wantoks stood with placards outside the hotel where the interim Council was going to meet. Because they came very early and posted the pictures on facebook, they manage to scare away the former lawyer of the Minister who was the main obstacle to solving the situation.

Subsequently, the interim Council unanimously decided to demand my return from exile. The Chancellor then published their decision in the newspaper, and the staff organizations followed suit with statements of their own in support. This was the major turning point in the saga, although few people know about it.

Demonstration at Council meeting

3- The third example, is a staff member who exposed the lackadaisical attitude of the acting management in carrying out the decision of Council. He decided to get a loudhailer and in front of the administration building, and ask management to execute the decision of Council. He announced his action a few hours before by text message. The pictures of the “one man forum” however went viral on Facebook, and were instrumental to increasing the support for the student movement.

One man forum

4- The fourth example is Eddy Nagual, the SRC president for 2014. He was literally thrown into the role, without knowing much about the background of the conflict. The previous student leader, however, had made sure that he could not leave campus to sell out under pressure and exposed to temptations. He was coordinating the actions of his followers from abroad through Facebook. The 2014 SRC president immediately committed to a non-violent approach, which was an important innovation and a condition for the SRC 2014's movement's success.

Ministers' visit

To my surprise, and against my advice, the SRC 2014 had decided to put forward only one demand “No Schram, No School”. The scope for negotiation was therefore zero. During one episode, a delegation of 6 government ministers came to campus to talk with the students. The SRC President 2014 politely listened to their pleas, and then merely reiterated the students' only demand. Leadership requires courage, and sometimes this will make people feel uneasy.

Initially, all student actions took place on campus, it was however when they decided to organize demonstrations in the district capitals that politicians started to take notice.When the politicians understood that the movement had to power to determine their political future, they gave in.

No Schram, No School
The dynamics of the boycott “No Schram, No School”, obscures the more important fact that the real challenge was to re-establish a legitimate Council for the University in compliance with its Act. The Chancellor with the Attorney General and the Minister's Lawyer (whose son was on campus) were able to engineer a solution. After forming the new Council, the long awaited approval of my visa was a mere formality. The rest is history, our Council has supported the leadership team in its agenda of rebuilding the university organization, and the transformation of all its activities into a student-centred and mission focused direction.

As a University we have a role in shaping the next generation of leaders. We are however traditionally focused on transfer of knowledge to students, not leadership competences. This is changing now. Through our accreditation program, for example, student-centred teaching techniques are compulsory in all our course. This will help in developing the basic communication, critical thinking and team working skills for leadership.

In addition, for small groups of students The Voice delivers their program on our campus, and personally I offer a short intensive course on Leadership and Transparency. In this course, we simulate leadership challenges in order to prepare our students for the requirements of this new type of leadership.

In sum, during the 3 year long saga UNITECH students have shown the courage to stand up for what is right, and shown how to organize an peaceful, effective, and ultimately successful civil society movement in PNG, while keeping the support from the staff organizations and the Chancellor. A first condition for success was a change in leadership style - the leadership revolution - towards a more individual, informed, and adaptive type of leadership. Secondly, control over the student radicals and a strong commitment to non-violence was essential, in contrast to previous student movements. It made all those who made violent and public threats against the students look silly, and merely enhanced support for the students. Thirdly, the massive use of social media assured all followers in the movement were well informed at all times, and could act fast. This in turn kept momentum, and strengthened their determination not to give up.

15 minutes of fame


  1. Well documented turn of events which clearly articulates leadership role in different situations and roles that were strategically aligned in a non violent and clarity in leading people to achieve a desired outcome.

    1. Thank you, I hope the revised edition of this post is better articulated. The important of non-violence, courage and persistence and the key role of social media is hopefully coming out clearly.

  2. You've a fascinating blog. And Congratulations, This blog post has been featured in my blog. I'm a self help blog author and my hobby is to read, hand pick and honor bloggers who write self help topics that include personal, social and leadership skills. Please keep in touch with me in Twitter, @selfhelpnemonik. In Twitter, I follow focused self help coaches, who are bloggers like you to share and exchange best practices relating to self help topics and blogging. I kindly request you to include any of my posts in your blog if you find it interesting. That way we can help our visitors enhance their knowledge through our focused niche self-help topics. Looking forward to build a long term blogging relationship with you. -Sridhar Chandrasekaran

  3. Dear Sridhar: thank you. Unfortunately, I have little time for blogging and merely publish my speeches here. I am interested in developing a coaching mechanism for emerging leaders in PNG, and will look at your blog.


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