Catherine the Great

(Catherine The Great -(Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons)


Leadership and entrepreneurship have a lot in common. To earn the name, ‘The leader’ costs a lot of trust. The ability to withstand the trials that come your way before this title firmly engraves into the hearts of those you influence is key. As an entrepreneur, you must also show the ability to withstand risks and earn the trust of those who invest in you. You need to prove that you are worthy of every cent spent on you.


I’m an entrepreneur, a business mentor and to many, leadership may not be an area they have heard me talk about. But I have come to believe that a cast vote is to a leader what a borrowed cent is to an entrepreneur. Either way, trust is a currency.


Late last month, I had the privilege of speaking to a team of student leaders from Mount Kenya University, a leading private university inclined in Science and Technology in Kenya. I’m an alumnus of the same. These young ladies and gentlemen stood as the active ‘government’ of the institution in various campuses. Standing before them was such an honor bearing in mind that I had been a student leader in the same institution between 2014 and 2016. I wasn’t a voted leader, but a student representative; a leader by volunteering. Think of it as trading in trust.


It was hard not to indulge in the excitement that came with their success. Though I’m not into politics, I could tell that the victory garnered left every student leader high with joy. It is that speech that I would want to recollect and share with you here.


Rising To The Celebration

“Congratulations ladies and gentlemen for acing the leadership positions in the recently concluded elections at the Mount Kenya University, in all campuses.

You have officially bridged the gap between your desires and achievements, turning your passion into action. What you felt was desirable, you have achieved. Now the work begins. And that is why I’m here. Good afternoon.”


Of course, this only came after I had made the team dance into one of the silliest songs I have ever learned. I’m the kind of speaker who prefers to raise the energy of my audience in the most awkward way I can think of. A particular song, “One man went to mow, went to more a meadow…” when sang in Swahili is as silly as they come. I make sure that my audience dance to the … “Mbwa wake, paka wake, panya wake, mkia wake; kwenda, kwenda kulima shamba.”(His dog, his cat, his mouse, his tail; went to mow a meadow.”)

I’m still not certain whose tail is the song refers to. But that’s a story for another day. For now, let’s return to the speech. Shall we?


“I believe you have been inspired into leadership by particular people in your life. Who could that be? Who would dare shout out who inspired them?”

A few hands go up, almost timidly. I point out one leader and she quips,



I swallow hard. Yet another one, a huge fellow who is glad to be sitting right under a hard working fan this afternoon thunders,

“Mr. Odhiambo”

There is a bit of a murmur in the room. I smile then decide to ask yet another awkward question.


“How many people here are IT students?”

As the hands go up, I quickly put in.

“IT students hardly raise up their hands, they are too busy coding to raising their hands.”

The students giggle, so we carry on.


“Did you know that the former senator of Mombasa county, Senator Hassan Omar, was once the chairperson of Moi University Student Union?”

“And Senator James Orengo was once the chairperson of Nairobi University Student Organization?”

“Kipchumba Murkomen was once the chairperson of Kenya Law School Student Society. And you, today, are a student leader at Mount Kenya University. Who will you inspire?”


Does The Cost Of Your Crown Match The Worth You Will Bring Forth?

Mount Kenya University ICT centre

By Jwkoigi (], via Wikimedia Commons


“Today, I want to share with you a little history of a country I have come to love. Russia. It’s nothing current, but it is very important. It will help you answer to the question, ‘Does the cost of your crown match the worth you will bring forth?’ which is actually the topic of the day.”

The room is both hot and tense. The air is thickening despite the fans working overtime to send away the heat of the day and that generated by my audience. It is slightly after 2pm; the unforgiving hour of the day in Mombasa in terms of heat and humidity.


“Welcome to the story of Princess Sophie, born in a poor family despite the huge title ‘Princess’. The story of a girl who rose to become ‘Catherine the Great’, the longest-serving Empress of Russia.”


“Born in Prussia, in 1729, Sophie met her betrothed husband Peter III at the age of 10. Aren’t you lucky today to have the option of choosing a boyfriend or girlfriend?”


Don’t Mess With The Emperor’s Wife

“Sophie immediately hated Peter. ‘How could a man so young be hooked to alcohol yet still play with soldier toys?’ She wondered. He was pale, too ugly for her liking. But his aunt who had brought him to Prussia to meet Sophie, Empress Elizabeth, was determined to make Princess Sophie Peter’s wife. So the deal was brokered, Peter and the Empress returned to Russia.

In 1744, Sophie moved to Russia as it was agreed during the visit. Deep in her heart, she resolved to ace the throne as the Empress of Russia like Elizabeth.  Not just the Emperor’s wife.


Every day, Sophie woke up in the middle of the night and studied the Russian language. She paced in her bedroom bare feet to ensure that she didn’t fall asleep. It paid off! She mastered the language and the culture but like Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, the accent never left her tongue.


Her studies didn’t come without a cost. Sophie’s feet were sore from walking on the cold floors. Her mother came to Russia to see her, urging her to take confession through a Lutheran priest. “No, I don’t want any Lutheran; I want my Orthodox Father.” Her father, being Lutheran was opposed to this. However, this move cause Empress Elizabeth to love her more.

The Russian Orthodox Church received Sophie and changed her name to Yekaterina Alekseyvna (Catherine daughter of Aleksey). And the following year Catherine married Peter III who had already been named a Duke.”


A Coup Away From The Throne

“Getting closer to the throne Catherine? Gladly. But there was more on her way to conquer.

Upon Elizabeth’s death, Peter III ascended to the throne in January 1762 bringing Catherine even close to her desired spot.

But Peter was abusive, a great womanizer who couldn’t decline the flow of the mistresses’ skirts. He wooed them all, slept with them without shame. In fact, it is said that he hardly shared a room in the castle with Catherine.”


I pause. Every student leader is mesmerized. They seem to curse under their breaths but I don’t want to be caught in the mess. They might just burn my character at stake right from the story before I finish it. Phew! I continue.


“Just 6 months after ascending to the throne, Peter decided to go on holiday leaving Catherine at home. Big mistake right there Emperor Peter. Like the clever girl she was, this was the time to actualize her plan to overthrow her husband. She had been planning a coup since he rose to power. She got him arrested and forced him to sign a document that would declare her as the sole claimant of the crown!”


… You Didn’t See This One Coming, So Learn From It

“On to the throne she rose on September 1762. Empress Catherine the Great, she became.

Crown with Courage

Catherine the Great
(Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons)

Later, Peter III died. The poor guy hadn’t even ruled for a full year. There is no evidence that Catherine had a hand on it so let’s leave it right there.”


The student leaders’ faces have mixed emotions. The ladies are glad, but the gentlemen are not. What am I to do? I’m not a fan of ‘Happy ever after’ stories anyway.


“I believe that’s where you are today. You have won your way to the crown. Whatever the means you used, I don’t want to dwell on that. My question to you this afternoon is, ‘Does the cost of your crown match the worth you will bring forth?’ Catherine’s did. In fact, she earned the status of an ‘Enlightened Despot’ during her 34 years rule as the Empress of Russia. You could borrow a leaf from her.


Her term as an empress wasn’t an empty season of overdue leadership. She earned Russia a seat amongst the world’s superpowers. How did she do that?


  1. Expanded Borders

Catherine the Great got the Russian Army to attack the neighbors conquering Southwards and Westwards. This diminished the Ottoman Empire and Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth earning Russian at least 520 000 Km2. Every conquered land was turned into a Russian town or city. And you wonder why Russia is such a large country? There you got it.

Now that you are a student leader, how will extend the borders of your campus? How will you make the name of your campus mighty such that the residents around it see it as the only campus to go to?


  1. Strengthened Economy

She introduced advanced agriculture, manufacturing using modernized machinery and mining hence boosting Russia’s economic growth.

What growth can we expect in your campus during your term?


  1. Suitable Education

She started the 1st ever state-financed higher education institute; Smolny Institute. The institute availed formal education to young women in Russia. They studied Maths, Law, Agriculture, History, Geography, Dance, Art, and Music.

Being a Patron of Arts and a writer, Catherine introduced museums, libraries, theatre and independent press. That’s when she earned the Enlightened Despot title.


It is so easy to tiptoe through your tenure as a leader without making a mark. But that would be a shame to your crown. How about searching for opportunities that would favor the meek in the campus and use that to lift them up? Foster clubs that will bring out rare talents into the limelight.

While you are at it, consider putting up an innovation club if there isn’t one at your campus. The world is counting on you.


  1. Favorable Culture

It was Catherine the Great who first abolished capital punishment in Russia. She put up the Nakaz (Instructions) that emphasized on equality of all Russians and land ownership. The Nakaz also saw to the liberation of serfs through marriage and prohibition of slavery of prisoners of war.


Due to her love for music, she sent composers abroad to study the art of composing. Those who learned came back to Russia to play and teach others.

As much as it is difficult to abolish the lay-back culture among young people, would you dare get the students into positive action?


  1. Upgraded Army

It would only be sensible when you have upgraded the economic status of your territory to also upgrade the army. To Catherine the Great, this was more than necessary. She needed to ensure that no overthrown territory could retaliate. So she made sure that Russia had the best of the equipment needed for war and the skills to go along with. She recruited scientists from Britain and Sweden to help arm her army.


As the President of the Student leadership, will you arm your army with the knowledge to make sure that they know what they need to do and deliver it?

You are a student leader. In essence, lead. Score high marks in your tests. Top your class. Be the best presenter during project work. Head at least one co-curriculum activity while in the institution. Better still, be a founder of a club and foster the unrepresented talents.


You will have plenty of meetings to attend to represent the students who elected you. That means missing out several classes. You have lots of catching up to do. That shouldn’t mean you copy assignments that were been given in your absence. Like Catherine the Great, study at night and work during the day. Leadership will scoop away your time to sleep. You asked for it, and this is the way it looks.”

Student leader

You are first a student, then a leader

Handling Students’ Expectations

“Students who voted you into power will expect help and favors from you. They can’t wait for you to return from the retreat to start pouring out their troubles into your palms. You may have overpromised as it is common during campaigns. Now it’s time to deliver. How will you go about it?


  1. Watch who you surround yourself with

Be united as a team of leaders. Consult before you act and don’t publicly disown a fellow leader. It cost Peter III his crown when he slept around with his mistresses disowning the wife. Well, Catherine gained the crown by force.


  1. Solve issues sooner than later

When it comes to the students you lead DELAY = DENIAL. You don’t want to deal with bitterness because you failed to report or solve an issue in time. If you sleep on the job, they will skip protocol forcing you to also skip protocol. Contact the Dean of Students regularly so that he or she is up to date with the state of affairs. Any delay will cause the students take the case there and it will seem as negligence.


  1. Keep lecturers, management and the administration close

Trust me you will need each one of them. Take time to know them by name and their expertise. That will help you solve students’ problems faster. When units don’t match or students have school fees problems they will come through for you.

For the 3 years I was a student representative, recognizing and interacting with each and every staff member at the campus made my work as a leader easier. Become the bridge that students can depend on to access places they may be scared to go to.


  1. Lead with courage not fear or shame

Catherine surrounded herself with enlightened people. She asked for help when she needed it but pursued with courage when she wanted to conquer a territory.

You are a leader; you will need help from time to time. Ask. Don’t be too macho to seek assistance. Besides, there is no shame in asking for help.


  1. Take a counseling class

Solving problems can be stressful. You need the wisdom to handle them as they come. A counseling class will help you carry yourself in a mature way when dealing with other students’ problems. You will also be able to offer sound judgment when you are in touch with the school counselor.


  1. Have a discussion group

If you have to remain diligent in your studies, you will need study mates. Students still need to interact with you as a fellow student, not as a god. That is when you can serve them best.


  1. Have integrity

Your life is like freshly washed linen in a cloth line. When you fail, misbehave or lack, all students will know. Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. If you failed, don’t cheat for marks. If you lack, ask for help. Students love to help leaders they believe in. Now, regarding mischief; let that not be your portion.


You have come this far and scooped the position of a student leader. Don’t forget, you are a student first, then a leader. You have the crown now, like Empress Catherine the Great, make the fight you put up during the campaign count. Let it bear fruits that will shape your legacy. It is not how you fought that will be remembered, it is how you led the people that will last in their minds.”

What is your advice to student leaders in various institutions around the world? Drop a comment below. Sharing is caring

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