Focus | Three things I wish I knew the day I became a Cabinet minister
I was 29 years old when Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham invited me to serve in his Cabinet for the first time. That was in March 1997. I had never been a member of Parliament, a senator or a senior party official. Ingraham was taking a chance with me and knew he was sending a message to young people in the nation about their ability to participate if they accepted the mantle to serve. To date, I believe that no one has served in the Cabinet at a younger age. Some 22 years later, reflecting on my freshman sojourn in politics, there are three things I wish I knew when I became a minister then.
First, I wish I knew more about what being a member of Parliament required. I wish that I understood that there was a need to balance the responsibility of representing my constituents with the responsibility of serving the nation in general. It was easy then, as an inexperienced politician, to be taken up with the awesome responsibilities and privileges of being a member of the executive to the neglect of the fundamentally important responsibility to serve my constituents as their representative. If I had known better, I would have spent more time interacting with my constituents, listening to and understanding their concerns and working to give them the assurance that I was working every day to make a difference in their lives, in their community and in the country at large. MPs who are Cabinet ministers should want to do a great job in both roles, but should understand that there really is an awesome burden to maintain the confidence of the people who vote for them and make it possible to become a Cabinet minister in the first place. Nothing promotes strength of government like the confidence of voters in their elected representatives.
Second, I wish I knew how helpful senior civil servants could be if you give them the time and respect to guide you. In those heady days, I became impatient at times. That impatience sometimes caused me not to see the wisdom of what I was being guided about and, in the end, the error of my ways became obvious. For example, in my first budget meeting with senior staff at the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, I was warned that lofty ideas of getting funding for this project and that project were impractical. Ignoring this wisdom, I told them to tell me what they needed and I would get it. Ha! The minister of finance took a knife to my naïve budget requests like a butcher angry with his meat. It would take me some 10 years before I was on the other side of that knife and clearly saw how inexperienced ministers could be so deluded about what is possible and not possible in the public finances. Had I listened to those senior civil servants, I could have saved time and pride by making a more reasonable budget proposal. To their hurt and harm, inexperienced ministers ignore senior civil servants’ guidance. Of course, some of these civil servants are not altogether willing to be helpful or cooperative, but they are few, and in time their ways become known and can be addressed. I had that experience too.
Third, I wish I knew better how to enjoy the journey more. I took myself at times too seriously and didn’t show sufficient deference to the people around me. This was a mistake. I was thought of as aloof and arrogant often. Truth is that I was really a confident soul but hardly believing that I was better than or above anyone else. I did not do small talk much or spend too much time socializing with colleagues or many others. This was a mistake, as I could have had a greater impact on the lives of people if I got closer, enjoyed their company more and shared more of myself with them and themselves with me. In leadership, you have to be people-focused and they have to believe that you truly care about them and are interested in their well-being. To do that, you have to run the risk of making yourself vulnerable, opening up to them and enjoying the moments of fellowship. When we fail at inspiring others, we miss a huge opportunity to have more lasting impact. The political platform is one of the most people-focused on the planet and, if used well, can be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling in the universe.
I am 51 now; I cannot go back in time. I have no desire to do so. I am not involved with politics and have no desire to do so now or into the future. I have, however, learned some of those lessons and try to take them with me into my present and future endeavors. I hope that these might be similarly learned by other leaders who can implement them with much greater effect than I can. There is so much to gain by doing so.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.