Sanwo-Olu: Leadership in Crisis Times

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Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Dr. Femi Hamzat_ Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and Commissioner for Health, Professor Akin Abayomi

Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu has delivered leadership in this challenging period, writes Israel Opayemi

One of the most fascinating courses I have sworn I must attend at the Kennedy School in Harvard this year is on “Leadership in Crisis Times”, a one week Executive Programme co-chaired by Arnold Howitt and Dutch Leaonard, two leading experts in crisis management.

Interestingly, three of the case studies used during this programme are “Emergency Response System Under Duress: The Public Health Fight to Contain SARS in Toronto, Almost a Worst-Case Scenario: The Baltimore Tunnel Fire of 2001, Command Performance: County Firefighters Take Charge of 9/11 Pentagon Emergency.”

These case studies are all about how cities have responded in crisis times. All of these case studies are particularly relevant to me, because the two portfolio responsibilities assigned to me as the MD of Chain Reactions Nigeria, my Public Relations Consulting firm is Senior Executive Counsel to organisational leaders and crisis management.
They are, therefore, relevant to me as a Public Relations Consultant, who works with the Governor of a state like Lagos with over 20 million people.

But I am motivated to write this piece for a number of reasons, chief of which is the humility some of the ardent critics of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu have displayed in the last few days. I had had a bitter argument some months back with a professional colleague of mine, who had written off this governor over the state of roads in Lagos State. I told him I was putting my calling on the line to assure him Governor Sanwo-Olu will not fail Lagosians.

Weeks later, he kept on sending me WhatsApp messages about roads being fixed across the State. Immediately the Governor rolled out the containment strategy for Covid-19, he gave me a call and said, “Israel, I am now a repentant admirer of your client. You said it.”

What endeared Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to my colleague is, always what we as Crisis Communications Consultants are trained to teach our clients. The first lesson in crisis times is, always communicate. Brief your people. Communicate your plan with clarity and conviction. When a leader goes quiet in crisis times, the rumour mill would thrive.

I listened to the most ridiculous of the rumour merchants on the social media just this week. It was the audio recording of a phone call by a certain unnamed woman, who claimed that President Muhammadu Buhari and his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari had been smuggled out of Nigeria to the UK for treatment.

C’mmon! Do you put a President and a Chief of Staff in a carton and smuggle them out of the country or what? What my practice has taught me is that, in crisis times, never leave a void. If you do, because nature abhors a vacuum, the rumour merchants will fill it for you.

In crisis times, the greatest gift of consolation a leader can give his people is the gift of hope. Hope that, as people, we will overcome the scourge. A leader is a merchant of hope. This is the first sterling quality a leader must possess and release in crisis times.

A leader must brief his people. By briefing, he gives hope. By briefing, he gives a sense of assurance. Lagos would have been in dire straits but for the regular briefing institutionalised by Governor Sanwo-Olu. Imagine if the manufacturers of food and beverages had shut down this week due to uncertainties.

We risk violent attacks and looting of malls and stores across the state by desperate people in search of food and water. Governor Sanwo-Olu engaged critical stakeholders in Manufacturers Association of Nigeria via a teleconference on Wednesday and Thursday back to back. He gave a sense of direction. He engaged the leadership of market association. Again, he gave a sense of direction.

Immediately the Abule Ado explosion occurred around 9am on Sunday 15, March, I had sent Governor Sanwo-Olu a text and followed up with a call to discuss the need for him to urgently send out a message of hope and assurance to the people. He assured me all Lagos State Government’s first responders were at the scene of the explosion.

He informed me he was getting briefed and he will do immediately there is some clarity as to the true state of things and that he would visit the scene. I could feel the pain in his voice as we spoke for about 11 minutes on the phone. He did exactly just what he told me he would do and even more by way of announcing a Disaster Relief Fund right at the scene of the explosion. He gave a leader’s most precious gift to a people in distress: hope!

You may then begin to ask, why does Governor Sanwo-Olu seem to outride every storm successfully? He has travelled through three storms in quick succession in one year, namely the storm of citizens’ discontent on poor state of roads, restriction of commercial motorcycles and tricycles, Abule Ado pipeline explosion and he is in his fourth storm.

The first thing I have found with this Governor is that, he reads and listens. Each time we have sent him a strategy document or an advisory on any issue, he has read it and thoroughly dissected it before we will meet. He has also shared with his Commissioner for Information and Strategy and the Communications team for inputs. So, I have concluded, blessed is a people whose leader is a reader!

On the listening part, I will struggle to score who does it better amongst three governors have had the privilege of working with as a Consultant and one as Aide. As Governor of Lagos State for 8 years, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola would take his note pad, listen to you, then, with surgical precision, he will take your point one by one. Then he swings to execution mode.

Till date as second term governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi will sometimes not commit to do what you have counseled him to do. But check the papers and the social media in 24 hours he has done exactly just that and perhaps more.
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s style as Governor still makes me laugh till today. As an Aide who had unfettered access to him then, he would argue with you first, then, gets his then ADC, Gbolahan Lawal to call you to document your point of view into a one page document.

Asiwaju then refines the ideas and goes ahead with discipline to execute them. I have carefully checked the environment of all these leaders. They have either not surrounded themselves with sycophants as Aides or they know who amongst them to listen to.

A senior Special Assistant to Governor Sanwo-Olu once said something intriguing to me during one of my visits to the Lagos House, he said, “I have never seen a Boss like mine. We his Aides can practically summon him to a meeting and tell him, Mr. Governor, we don’t like what you did on this matter.”

He said he would take his time to explain the rationale for his decision to them and ensure they understood. I practically had goose bumps all over me hearing this. I have concluded that a people are blessed when they have a leader who listens.

One of the tasks I have set for myself post Covid-19 is to help Governor Sanwo-Olu document the processes followed to manage this pandemic. Governments should document the handling of this pandemic, as a Case Study for future needs by either themselves or their successors.

One thing is clear: Lagos State is gifted with a safe pair of hands in Governor Sanwo-Olu and I do hope, this experience would be shared at a Peer Review Session by the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) under the leadership of Dr. Kayode Fayemi sometime soon.

States need to develop better mechanisms for crisis management. After this health crisis, we will be heading straight to managing a severe economic crisis that will be a direct result of Covid-19. Nigeria will need more Governor Sanwo-Olus, when that crisis starts. We will need our leaders to brief us regularly. We will need more Merchants of Hope at the State and Federal level.

Thus, Governor Sanwo-Olu, Dr. Obafemi Hamzat, Pro. Akin Abayomi, Mr. Gbenga Omotoso and the entire Lagos State Executive Council, please take a bow to these accolades and others already rendered by grateful Lagosians on the social media. Together, we will outride this storm and march to the Greater Lagos of our dream.

––Opayemi is a Lagos-based Public Relations Consultant