Ambode, leading by listening, by Ken Ugbechie
It was Winston Churchill who 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.” Spot-on! It takes real courage to stay still and listen, even to the most banal of speakers. And this is the hallmark of great leaders. Successful people are usually associated with being great listeners and less talkers. In my few interfaces with Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State, 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.
At a book presentation ceremony in Lagos recently, the man Ambode was the focus of speakers as they reeled out how the governor has responded to their requests most times through social media platforms. The requests ranged from appeals to the Lagos State government to fix a particular road or attend to a life-threatening situation in a neighbourhood. Those who put out such requests attested to the fact that few days after tabling their request, the governor responded not in words but with action.
Just last month, 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. A meeting between editors and public office holders is usually a hotbed of debate and dialogue that sometimes drifts to the polemical. In most cases, it is a ‘we’ versus ‘them’ banter which often throws up a fractious spat. 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 voice 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. For some, he promised instant attention; for others he explained that action will begin in a matter of weeks or months. 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, Lagosians are already singing his praises as the governor who has identified with the masses more than any in 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 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.