Two Dozen Basic Management Principles (Pt. 4)

The four boys were loaded into a truck – a much nicer truck – and taken to Kakuma. Kakuma was a United Nations refugee camp and it became Lopez’ home for the next ten years.

Life at Kakuma was not a picnic. After the three older boys disappeared from the camp – Lopez never saw them again – he moved into a tent of ten boys in camp section fifty-eight. This group became his new family. Each one looked after the other. They shared what little they had with one another. Let me share a couple of snapshots from his time at Kakuma.

Food — Once a month, the UN called their names for the food distribution. Each received a bag filled with grain, some oil, a little sugar, and a little salt. When they got back to the tent, they combined their rations and hid them in the tent from the older boys who preyed on younger, weaker boys.

Even with pooling their rations, they only had enough grain for one meal a day. Six days a week they ate their meal in the middle of the night. That way, they were the hungriest when they needed their strength the least.

Management Lesson #4 — Live Within Your Means

It is easy to be successful when you have access to unlimited capital funds. It is easy to be successful when you can raise your operating budget 5% every year. It is something different when you are asked to do more with the same amount or fewer dollars. Lopez learned very quickly how to ration out the limited amount of food he got. This was made even more important when that ration was cut by 50% due to a famine in Kenya. Can you be so disciplined? Can you be successful if your budgets are held flat or cut? Can you learn to live within your means?

Six days a week they ate only one meal but one day was different. Every Tuesday around noon, workers left the fenced UN compound and pushed wheelbarrows to the far side of the camp. Every boy in the camp listened for the squeak, squeak, squeak of the wheelbarrows rolling through the camp.

The moment a UN worker emptied the first wheelbarrow over the edge into the dump, mayhem broke out. Boys jumped down into the pit and dug through the garbage as quickly as they could. Elbows flew. Fights broke out. Boys went after the garbage like hungry hyenas fighting over a gazelle carcass.

Lopez’ family worked together as a team down in the pit. They fought against the other boys for ripe mangoes and half-eaten pieces of bread, bananas, and scraps of meat. Tuesdays were the high point of their week, the one day they ate well – the day they ate garbage.

Management Lesson #5 — Don’t Complain

Lopez never thought that life was unfair because he had to eat garbage. Instead, he looked at the scraps of food from the dump as a blessing. He knew some who chose to feel sorry for themselves, who complained constantly about their lot in life. What is the point of such complaining? After all the whining and complaining is over, you still live in a refugee camp. All the complaining in the world will not make your life any better. Instead, you must choose to make the best of whatever the situation in which you find yourself, even in a place like Kakuma.

Death – Lopez had to adjust to the fact that death was a regular part of life. In Kakuma, boys got sick and died every day. Whenever boys died, they always said that malaria got them. They did not want to admit that the deaths were due to the cutting of the food ration during the Kenyan famine or the unsanitary conditions in the camp. Boys simply wanted to keep swimming in the big hole in the wet season that served as the latrine in the dry season.

Soccer – Nearly every boy in Kakuma played soccer. On the field, Lopez lived up to his name – Lopepe – which meant “fast.”  He became one of the best scorers in the camp. As the camp grew larger, the boys crowded onto the soccer field making it impossible to play. To solve this problem, the older boys came up with a plan. Before anyone could set foot on the soccer field, they first had to run one lap around the camp. The faster you finished your lap, the sooner you got to play soccer. While running sounds like torture to many people, running allowed Lopez to escape the realities of life in the camp – hunger, illness, and death. Running became his therapy. But he ran fast because he loved soccer. The faster he finished his lap, the more soccer he got to play.

School – When Lopez was not running around the camp or playing soccer, he went to school. Every weekday morning from eight until noon, he attended UN-sponsored classes.  He did not have a classroom. Instead, he met under a large canvas tent workers put up to protect students from the sun. The school did not supply textbooks. They sang most of their lessons. They did not have paper and pencils. They wrote their lessons in the dirt with a stick. Mistakes were corrected – not with a reprimand – but with a swift smack of a stick.

Parents – Lopez does not remember the day that he came to the realization that his parents were dead. Every day, he wondered if today might be the day his parents would come and take him home. Surely they must be out there somewhere, searching for him anywhere and everywhere. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Months turned into years, but they never walked through the gates.

Once he made peace with the fact that he would never go home again, the next step came quite naturally. He did not have a home any longer, and for all practical purposes, he no longer had a mother or father. He accepted the fact that he was an orphan.

Church – The longer Lopez was in Kakuma, the more central to his life church became. It was his doorway out of the refugee camp and into a wider world. He heard news from the outside there. It was his post office. But the best part was the worship. When he was at church, he did not think about hunger, malaria, or death. Instead, he lost himself singing praises to God. He knew that God was there with him. He never, ever doubted that fact for a moment.

A turning point for Lopez came a few weeks before Christmas when the priest announced confirmation classes were to begin the following week. “A baptism service will follow on Christmas Eve for those who completed the class and are serious about a relationship with God,” the priest said. Those words touched Lopez deep in his soul. He knew this was something he must do. He knew that God had always been with him. Now was the time for a deeper relationship with Him.

Over the three or four weeks leading up to Christmas, the priest taught him many Bible stories. More than that, he taught us how to be close to God. That’s what Lopez wanted. Lopez did not have an earthly mother or father any longer. He wanted to have that Father relationship with God.

It is hard to describe what came over Lopez on Christmas Eve that year – the night of his confirmation. When the priest baptized him, he said: “You are now Joseph, and I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Second Corinthians 5:17 states that: “if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. All the old things have passed away and everything is made new.”  That verse came true for him that night. He was a new boy with a new name. He was now Joseph, a follower of Jesus, trustworthy and hard-working. He was no longer a lost boy. He was a brand-new man.

Management Lesson #6 — Have Faith

I am convinced that a core management trait, one that is completely overlooked, is the need for each of us to be faith-based. I understand that Lopez was a Catholic – you should know that I am not. What is important — whether you are a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Muslim – is that your faith should dictate how you manage in the workplace. Your management of people should be characterized by how you value truth, how you treat the weak, how you act as a steward of the assets given to you by upper management, and how treat others. That is – you need to have a faith that guides your decision-making.

Olympics – A buzz rose in the camp in the late summer of 2000. Everyone talked about a strange new thing. A word flew around the camp, a word that Lopez had never heard before – the “Olympics.” As told earlier in this presentation, Lopez’ first encounter with the Olympics convinced him that a life existed for him beyond the perimeter of Kakuma. God Himself had brought him to Kakuma. He always thought He must have had a reason for bringing him here. Now he had it. Now he knew where his destiny lay. Michael Johnson opened a wider world to him. By God’s grace, he would get there.

Management Lesson #7 — Dream Big

It would have been easy for Lopez to dream small. He was an orphan, stuck in a squalid refugee camp, with no assets or connections. Yet, when he watches an Olympic race for the first time – he decides that he will one day run in the Olympics for a country that he is not a citizen! How big are your dreams? Do you limit your potential by dreaming small?

America – From where Lopez sat, the only difference between America and heaven was that he had to die to go to heaven. He knew all about America – or at least he thought he did. “Everyone eats as much food as they want.” “Anyone in America can get any job they want.” “That’s the place where all your dreams come true.”

The occasional sight of an American in his camp only confirmed everything he thought he knew. Every American who visited the camp stood tall, clean, and well fed. They also were white and pure. Americans were white just like the pictures of Jesus he’d seen. That’s why he thought Americans must be close to God. He dreamed of going to America but he had no chance of seeing that dream come true.

Until now.

A real live American stood up to fill him in on the details. “Thirty-five hundred boys from Kakuma will be allowed to move to the United States permanently under the sponsorship of Catholic Charities,” he said in English, which was translated into Swahili by one of the camp directors. “Anyone can apply to be one of the thirty-five hundred. You must write an essay in English that tells your story. We will accept essays for the next three weeks. Obviously, the sooner you turn yours in, the better. Once we receive your essays, we will read through them and make our selections.”

Thirty-five hundred. The number sounded so high yet so small at the same time. When Lopez ran around the camp each day, there were boys as far as the eye could see. He never thought of trying to count them all, but he knew thirty-five hundred was a drop in the bucket compared so many lost boys. He’d heard other boys’ stories. Everyone had lived through Hell. Many of those boys had lived through Hell far longer than him.

The moment the church service ended, he went back to his tent to pray. “Father, I cannot write anything that stands out from all the other boys in this camp. But I trust You. If You want me in America, I know You will lift up my essay and make it stand out. You will take me to America, not this essay.”

Words spilled across the page. He was not nervous. He did not wonder what the Americans would think of his story or whether they would find it strong enough to select him as one of the thirty-five hundred. Sitting in his tent, borrowed paper and pencil in hand, he did not write his story for the Americans. This essay was a prayer he wrote for God alone. It was a prayer he hoped He would answer.

Having written the story in Swahili, he went to his friends, his family of boys who lived with him in his tent. “Guys, I need some help.” Over the next few days, translating this Swahili story into English became a community project.

Lopez took his completed essay to church the next Sunday. “To You, God,” he prayed as he dropped it in the bin near the front of the church as an offering. During the service he could not listen to the sermon. The bin of essays had his full and undivided attention. “It is up to You, God,” he prayed. “You will decide.” Yes, it was up to Him, not the Americans. God would indeed decide what was best for him. God had brought him to Kakuma with this three angels. God must have a plan for when and how Lopez was to leave. Knowing God was in control was the only thing that allowed him to stop fixating on the bin and go back to his tent after church.

On Christmas day, Lopez ate a feast and then went to church. As he walked into church, something was different. The American was back. His heart raced. The American announced: “Please come forward when I read your name.” Name after name was read. Finally, Lopez heard: “Joseph Lopepe Lomong.” Lopez leaped out of his seat. His friends clapped. They slapped his back. He strolled up front. A worker placed a large, white envelope in his hands. He went back to his seat, his heart pounding.

“Open it,” a friend said. “What does it say?” said another. Lopez opened the envelope. “What?” he said. The entire thing was written in English! He could not read a single word except his name. He walked up to one of his friends who could read and speak English well. “Can you tell me what this says?” Lopez asked.

He took one look and broke into a huge grin. “Congratulations, Lopez. You are going to America!”

Management Lesson #8 — Worry Only About What You Can Control

It would have been easy for Lopez to constantly wring his hands after putting the application in the bin. But he didn’t. He understood that he had done his part – he had completed the application and submitted it on time. He understood that he had done his best. It was now up to something and someone that he could not control. We as managers, need to have a similar perspective. We need to cast a vision, create a plan, staff the plan, provide the resources for the staff to complete the plan, and then get out of their way. There will always be surprises that we cannot control – systems that crash, employees that get sick, sponsors that get promoted, etc. Like Lopez, we need to worry only about those things that we have control over. Those things that we do not, are not worthy of our worry.




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