I concur that corruption is the chief problem of Nigeria. I reason with purveyors of this argument that but for corruption Nigeria would have transformed to the Japan or China of Africa; a strong nation with a thriving primary sector and healthy export balance sheet. But in our fixation on the bogey of corruption as our national albatross, we lose sight of the silhouette of yet another problem that has stymied the nation’s growth and stunted national development in post-independence Nigeria.
It is the critical problem of quality of leadership. Nigeria today is in stasis because leaders of yesteryears were ill-prepared and unskilled for the challenges of their office. This explains why after over five decades of indigenous leadership, Nigeria does not have a standard international airport, no functional and reliable railway system, no subway to take traffic away from the surface to underground, no functional public water supply facility, no reliable electricity supply system. The list is just too long.
Nigeria is yet to get a national leader in the mould of Sun Yat-sen widely regarded as the father of modern China. It was Yat-sen’s foresightedness, vision and courage that birthed what is today called China in the context that we know it: a furiously ambitious Asian nation that has successfully driven its big foot into every home on the face of the earth by the sheer power of innovation and creativity. The nation needs a Lee Kuan Yew, the enduring emblem that define leadership in Singapore, pulling a nation out of the ruins of war and despoliation and setting it on a new path paved with digital innovation. Yew introduced computer to the children of Singapore; he wired homes, schools and offices to the internet and under him, Singapore transformed to an emerging digital economy from a wholly analogue market.
One common denominator inherent among these great leaders is vision. The power of vision is the ability to see tomorrow when everybody is busy and satisfied feasting on the crumbs of today. No Nigerian national leader, living or dead, ever dared to see tomorrow for the nation. They failed to dream, to dare and to unclasp themselves from the transitory comfort of their immediate communes and moments in history. Reason is, they were not prepared for the office of leadership especially leadership of a nation with monumental potential.
Winston Churchill, the famous British Prime Minister, who switched Britain from the precinct of defeat to victory during the Second World War once echoed this remarkable line: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” It takes real courage to stay still and listen, even to the most banal of speakers.
This, perhaps, is why Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, is outperforming his peers. He is a good listener and much more he came to the job primed and prepared. His academic and professional qualifications coupled with wide-ranging and long-standing work experience fully moulded him for the opportunity of the moment.
In my few interfaces with Ambode I have come to realize that he is more of the reticent politician, a listening leader than the jejune, cheap chatterboxes that have taken over the Nigerian political space.
Last year, at the twilight of the Ramadan, the governor hosted some Nigerian editors and media executives to a parley. He did not come with an ensemble of security men or even his cabinet members. He was casual in dressing but he was not so in his attitude. I watched Ambode as he calmly listened through the entire conversation.
Steven Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People noted that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. Those who listen with the intent to reply usually make poor leaders. They deflect good counsel and at the end they do not get any wiser than they were. A typical Nigerian politician is a poor listener. He is a competent talkative, full of airs and assumptions of himself as a know-all demigod. This is where Ambode betters the rest.
When it was time for the editors to drill him on his first year performance in office and his vision for the second year, the governor sat back, pulled out his pen and writing pad and was taking notes; penning down suggestions on how to better the lot of the people. He did not delegate the responsibility of documenting the suggestions from the journalists to any of his aides. He did it by himself. He did not listen with intent to reply; he listened with intent to know, to understand the mindset of the people; to connect with the voices on the streets which is what journalists represent. I saw a governor who was dutifully listening to all voices from the laudatory to the critical. I saw simplicity and effort by a leader to empathise with the led.
Once in a while, he would interject a speaker by requesting him or her to repeat the suggestion, request or question. To some requests, he promised instant attention; to others he explained that action will begin in a matter of weeks or months. These requests from the editors bordered on the government fixing one road or another. You could see a governor desirous of getting feedback from the field; from the people. A particular editor had suggested building bridges in the Alimosho area of the state through several communities as a panacea to the traffic congestion in that area. The governor took notes as the editor sketched the course of the bridges. He interjected the editor to demand fuller details of his suggestion. He never assumed that he knew those bridges were inevitable; he did not dismiss the suggestion as unworkable. He promised to take it back to his team for further analysis.
Journalists bear the voices of the people. They give voice to the voiceless. Ambode realized this and he was willing to extract every information, including very critical ones, from the editors. He said he loves listening to people; he loves engagement with different audiences; he loves scouring through the social media space to get a feel of the people of Lagos. Indeed, he loves to listen. Little wonder, in just one year and a half, Lagosians are already singing his praises as the governor who has identified with the masses more than any in the history of the state.
Ambode is a damn good listener. It is a rarity in leadership not just in the top echelon of the public sector but at every stratum of leadership even in the private sector. The leader ought not to be the one talking and tattling but the one listening and acting. A successful leader’s voice may not be heard from the distance but his presence fills the ambience. Ambode seems to have mastered the art of leading by listening rather than the crude way of leading by talking. In the final analysis, it is the listener who does, who acts and translates vision to reality. The talking leader never does. He is conceited and consumed in his delusionary state of ‘I know it all’. A good leader understands what the people need because he listens to them; a poor leader only understands what he thinks the people need because he never listens to them.
It’s still early days but the morning shows the day. Ambode’s impressive imprints in his first year and a half clearly points to a better, friendlier and more prosperous Lagos in the coming years. The man who once said he had “been a carpenter, a plumber and a foreman” in his 27 years of service in Lagos State is obviously making the most of his new status as the “project manager” of this magical megapolis.