Things Fall Apart: Leadership Lessons

This month I was unfortunately bed-ridden due to an operation that I had to undergo. On receiving the news that I needed to go for an operation, I was disappointed because it meant I will not be able to run my favorite Comrades marathon. I, therefore, decided to use the time that I was forced to stay in bed to catch up on the books that I had bought but never got time to read. One of those books is “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.

The last time I read the book was in High School. I have to confess that I honestly do not remember most of the things that I read. The only thing I remember was that when things were not going well, my friends and I will always joke and say that things are falling apart.

As I was reading the novel for the second time, I was drawn and very interested in the way the author used Igbo proverbs. The author tells two intertwining stories in the book. The first story is about the rise and fall of Okonkwo, the main character. The second is about how colonization was introduced in the villages of Africa. Hence, things fell apart in Okonkwo’s life and the way the villagers used to live pre-colonisation.

As a Coach, I have also identified some of the life and leadership lessons to avoid things from falling apart in our personal and professional lives. These include, but not limited to the following:

  1. Learn, don’t hate

Okonkwo hated his father’s weakness. He vowed that he will never be like his father who was lazy, only loved to play his flute and drink wine. He hated everything his father stood for to such an extent that he became the extreme opposite of who his father was. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, died a poor man. Okonkwo, on the other hand, worked very hard to accumulate all the riches he could.

As we go up the corporate ladder, we get an opportunity to be led by different leaders. Some of these leaders are the epitome of what great leadership is all about. They make us love going to work and being part of their team. They bring out the best in each team member and make Employee Engagement to soar to greater heights.

In some cases, we meet leaders who make us hate going to work. They bring out the worst in us and make the organisation’s culture to be toxic. The only thing that keep us going back is that we think we do not have a choice, but must fend for our families. If we are not careful, instead of learning from them about what not to do, we might find ourselves unconsciously adopting some of their bad habit. Or we can tell ourselves that we do not want to be like them and become the extreme opposite of them.

The best thing to do, is to learn from these leaders, take the good and ignore the bad. It is important to make each leadership experience an opportunity to learn so as to become a better leader.

  • Lead with love

In his obsession of being different from his father, Okonkwo led his family with an iron fist. He was known to beat up his wives and children at the slightest provocation. His family was petrified of him. Because of the way he ruled his family, I believe it was one of the things that made it easy for his son, Nwonye, to take on the religion of the White man, leave and never to come back home.

Even though there is a lot of literature that encourages leaders to increase their emotional intelligence, and instead of leading with the head only, also engage the heart, a lot of leaders still fail to show their team members that they care about them as human beings. Some leaders lead their teams with fear. In meetings they are the only one whose voice is heard and people are afraid to voice their opinions. In some cases, they make the employees feel stupid for speaking and differing with them. You find that team that were productive with one leader, lose their confidence and become unproductive with another leader.

  • Avoid favoritism at all costs

Even though Okonkwo never said it verbally, he hated the characteristics that were similar to those of his father in his son Nwonye. He would always say in his mind that he wished his daughter, Ezinma was a boy. Father and daughter had a special relationship. Ezinma understood her father. She was the only one who could get him to calm down and eat even when his temper was very high.

It is a fact that there are people that we will automatically click and get along with. Whereas, there are others that we may have to work a little harder in order to get along with. It is easier to get along with people who have similar characteristics as ours and think alike. We do not have to convince them to go along with us. On the other hand, those who think differently to us may not easily agree with our decisions and our way of doing things. They approach things differently and come to decisions that we may not necessarily agree with.

Leaders need to be cautious not to be seen to have favourites in their teams. They need to be able to manage diversity and make all people within the team feel included even if they do not always agree with them. Team members who feel discriminated against end up not applying their minds to tasks. They wait for the leader to tell them what to do, because they know that they will either made to feel stupid for thinking differently than the leader. Or their opinions and decisions will be overridden.

  • Be trustworthy

The structure in the village was such that there were elders who acted as leaders and advisors to the younger members of the community. When an oracle was passed that Ikemefuna, a boy who was taken from another village in exchange of one of Okonkwo’s clansman that was killed should be killed, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, one of the oldest men in the village, advised Okonkwo not to touch the boy. This was because Ikemefuna was being taken care of by Okonkwo’s family. He regarded Okonkwo as his father and trusted him like one. Okonkwo did not listen. When one of the men hit Ikemefuna, the boy cried, calling on his father that they have killed him. Okonkwo, for fear of being called weak, took out his own matchet and cut Ikemefuna.

Trust is important in building healthy relationships and teams.  In most cases people focus on other people being trustworthy, but forget that they also have to be trustworthy. As much as leaders need to trust their team members, team members also need to know that they can trust their leaders. The team members need to know without a shadow of doubt that their leaders have their backs. Even when they make mistakes, they need to be confident that their leaders will protect them from the onslaught of criticism and negative talk from others. It is unfortunate that there are leaders who are not trustworthy. Great leaders are the ones who are able to discipline in private and compliment in public.


In one of the functions that was held in Okoknwo’s compound, his uncle Uchendu prayed; “we do not pray to have more money, but to have more kinsman”. The old man ended his prayer by saying that “an animal rubs his aching back against a tree. A man asks his kinsman to scratch him”.

There are so many leadership lessons that can be drawn from this book. The reality is that building and maintaining healthy relationships is a sure way of ensuring that our families, teams and organisations do not fall apart. If the glue is not strong, it is easy for a third force to destroy teams. We need to be careful of how we treat each other. Leaders must always be conscious of how their thinking, words and deeds affect the mood and culture within their teams. They must stop being just preachers, but also live their organisation’s values that they expect everyone to memorise and live.

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