Nigeria Needs the “Low Profile” Approach of the 1970s

More than ever before, Nigerians are unanimous in their opinion that their basic rights are constantly under threat every passing day. The #EndSARS protest now appears to many, to be a microcosm of the bigger challenges that both the government and the citizenry have to deal with. One of Nigeria’s foremost human rights activists, Ms Ayò Obe went down memory lane with Onikepò Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, to recount her involvement in the pro-democracy movement during the military era, which among other things, saw her going underground on a few occasions to avoid arrest by the military, and also emerge as the President of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), the first indigenous organised human rights group. She also spoke about her radio programme, the #BringBackOurGirls Campaign, the #EndSARS Protest, and why she thinks the anti-corruption war of the present administration is not yielding desired results

You are one of the pioneers of organised human rights movement in Nigeria, when yourself, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, Richard Akinola, Abdul Oroh and others started the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO). It was rare at the time, to see a female in the trenches alongside men, risking their lives, fighting the military. What motivated a young, brilliant female professional like you, to take those risks? What would you say was your most frightening experience during those times, and what would you say were your main achievements?

The Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) was founded by Olisa Agbakoba, Richard Akinola, Abdul Oroh and Clement Nwankwo in 1987, as Nigeria’s first indigenous organised human rights organisation. I didn’t join until 1988 when the CLO was in the news for having secured the release of dozens of people who had been arrested for simple offences such as ‘wandering’ over 12 years earlier, and I recognised Olisa Agbakoba as a Law School classmate.

So, I’m not a pioneer, the word “brilliant” is overused and misused in this country (as here), and since I was 40 when I became the CLO President, I’m not sure the word “young” is applicable either! I was certainly not the first woman in the CLO – the pioneers in that regard were people like, Amma Ogan and May Ellen Ezekiel, while I often met Bella Okagbue by the time I started attending CLO meetings.

I hope that disposes of the introduction to your question!

Abdul Oroh and Chidi Odinkalu persuaded me to stand for election as CLO’s Deputy President in October 1992, but I did not see that as taking “risks”. After all, the country was set to return to civil rule under General Ibrahim Babangida’s transition programme, and I felt that even though it might mean standing for CLO President a few years later, by then, the military would be out of the picture, we’d be under a Constitution, so it should be ‘a piece of cake’. I didn’t foresee that we would be under General Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship by the time I took over as CLO President in 1995 – maybe I would have dodged if I had, but as the Good Book says, you should not turn back having once put your hand to the plough.

As to frightening experiences, I don’t think that one operates with that kind of mindset. Even when Abacha was arresting activists in 1998 and I was told that I was on the list, I think my attitude was more one of depressed resignation to the inconveniences that would go with arrest. As it happened, I took advice to go underground so that never happened, but I do remember being scolded for attending court the morning of the day when I did so. (Yes, contrary to some people’s fevered imaginings, the position of CLO President was a voluntary – unpaid – one, and I had to earn my living!).

When Babangida cancelled the June 12th 1993 Presidential election, there were a series of demonstrations, including one by Legal Practitioners at the Lagos High Court. The Nigeria Police attacked that demonstration using teargas, and we all had to run away in our wigs and gowns, so I suppose that can be described as frightening, but really I’d say that in such situations, one is driven by adrenalin. For many of our other demonstrations, CLO members and staff were always very protective, and would try to usher me to safety whenever we came under threat.

Despite your pioneering efforts in human rights advocacy, you have remained silent in the past few years. Are you disillusioned, cowed or have simply given up on Nigeria? Because the trenches are virtually empty today, and yet, there are massive human rights violations across the country.

To be frank, I think that every element of this question is wrong. Indeed, your assertion that I “have remained silent in the past few years” captures a problem that you – the media – exacerbate.

Firstly, as a private citizen I’m not in the habit of issuing press statements or press releases. So, although I’ve given lots of interviews since I stopped being CLO President in 2003, if issuing press releases etc. is what you mean by “remained silent”, then you need to broaden your horizons!

Secondly, from September 2018 to August 2020, I presented a weekly radio programme which focused on Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability (IDEAS radio) which – though it was under an anti-corruption mandate – inevitably dealt with the issues of the day, because those entrusted with public power must be held accountable if they abuse it. And we have always considered the use of public power to deprive people of their human rights a particular specie of abuse, and thus, of corruption. You can check the videos, podcasts and transcripts at

Thirdly, I have a Twitter account (@naijama). A brief review of that account would also have shown (fourthly) that I have remained a participant in the #BringBackOurGirls protests since 2014. #BBOG Lagos did not stop holding weekly sit-outs, just because the Nigerian media could not stay the course in demanding accountability for the lives of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls! So, I think that this inability to accept that one may not know or see everything (let alone report it) and to recognise that there is always nuance and there are always shades of grey, exacerbates the climate of alienation and hopelessness. Because, if you start from the position that unless one is issuing ‘Statements’ or holding demonstrations on the streets, one is “silent”, then you close out the possibility that anything else might be happening.

But, apart from that, your question is unfair to those who are protesting today, leading the struggle against human rights abuse, and who have undertaken the (in many ways) more exacting task of holding government to account. Certainly, it does them an injustice to say that “the trenches are virtually empty” today.

Did the recent #ENDSARS Protests by the Youths bring back any memories? What is your opinion about the whole incident and the fallout therefrom? The incident at Lekki Tollgate, the allegations and counter-allegations about shooting, the Army, and the looting and destruction that followed? Do you think the Government’s approach has been the right one?

Of course, there were strong echoes in the protest. Since the return to civil rule and Constitution-based government – and with it, party politics – there have been inevitable divisions as different people who were active in the struggle against military rule, have aligned with different political parties. But, the #EndSARS protest – just like the demand for an end to military dictatorship – cut across political divisions because the victims of police brutality were not identified by ethnicity, religion or political persuasion.

After yet another police atrocity in 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan set up a panel on police reform, and that time, rather than just submit a memorandum, civil society decided to set up its own panel on police reform (which I chaired) and held hearings all across the country. We did hear from police officers about the issues they face, but we also had the testimony of so many working people, labourers and others trying to earn their daily bread or just survive, who had dreadful accounts of their sufferings at the hands of the Nigeria Police Force. I’d say that what made #EndSARS come alive was that, increasingly, police victims were no longer identified by class: in fact when the Ooni of Ife mentioned that members of his family had their own horrible experience, that showed that the routine brutality of police operations had now reached the middle classes – the seat of revolution! Everybody knew someone who had been affected and that’s why #EndSARS or #EndPoliceBrutality (because of the PHCN aspect) resonated with all Nigerians across the board. Including me! I could not be present in person at the protest held by Lawyers on the 13th, but I supported it.

It would be nice to think that the government’s speedy acceptance of the demands of the #EndSARS protests was because it recognised that this was indeed, a wrong that was overdue for attention and correction, but, some reports indicate that it was due to intelligence that in the Covid-era tinderbox that the collapse of the economy had made of many struggling Nigerians, advantage might be taken of the legitimate protest. That may have added some urgency, but I hope it does not mean that the impetus to reform and improve was not coming from the heart.

I’ve spoken elsewhere of my decision that once we returned to civil rule under a Constitution, since we would have the right to elect those who should address general issues of governance, provision and infrastructure etc., I would only involve myself in single issue campaigns where you take up a particular issue and campaign on that, declare victory and go home or move on to the next issue. Examples are the 2010 ‘Enough Is Enough’ campaign (to demand that then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan be free to exercise presidential powers consequent upon the incapacity of President Umaru Yar’Adua), the fuel price rise protests of January 2012, and the #BringBackOurGirls protests (2014 and continuing) are some examples, though with the last, who knew that we would still be campaigning for our Chibok Girls six and a half years later?

Now #BBOG, properly considered, includes a demand for good governance and security, though once all the Chibok Girls are accounted for, I for one, will fold up my tent and go home. So, when #EndSARS fleshed out its demand to ‘End SARS’ with the five point demand, I totally understood that.

However, it was clear that the demands – though accepted – could not all be implemented with a click of the fingers. So, while the ham-fisted ‘disband SARS/establish SWAT’ response of the Inspector-General of Police gave rise to justified suspicion, there was reason for suspending the protests. Particularly when in Lagos, by Monday 19th October, it was clear that – as some reported – “things are turning ugly”, that is, that events were moving from police officers being harassed to physical attacks on them and on police stations. My own clerk did not get home until almost midnight on that day, but others were relating their horrible experiences being robbed or having to pay ‘tolls’ to area boys before they could pass certain alternative unblocked routes. Yet, people who criticised that situation were more or less shouted down, while others who were comfortably sitting overseas were originating what seemed ridiculous claims such as “Keep going for 30 days and the UN will be forced to intervene”; “Fly the flag and soldiers cannot shoot you”, but which in the light of hindsight, have a slightly more sinister aspect.

As to what happened at Lekki Toll Gate on the 20th October, like others hearing the first reports, I was outraged and heartbroken at the terrible news and was more than willing to condemn the reported slaughter of peaceful protesters: there was no doubt that there had been shooting (it was heard by people in Lekki and Ikoyi), so it seemed inevitable that there would have been deaths. In fact, I was a signatory to such a statement by the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

But, stories of this victim or that victim kept emerging that would be circulated by reputable people, only to be debunked later. I actually wondered whether these stories were being planted so that when they were shown to be fake, we could all retreat into that dangerously comfortable space where we all get to pick our own ‘facts’. Unfortunately, very few came back to correct such reports or earlier claims. Our situation in 2020 is that, anyone can say anything to the media – even the investigative media – or in online videos. But, just as we saw with allegations of vote rigging in the recent US elections, in a judicial proceeding you must come with evidence, the veracity of which can be tested under cross-examination. For sure, the government story has changed a lot of times (I don’t find that in itself surprising where things are confused, and the natural instinct is to want to distance oneself from any culpability), but so have the claims on the side of those who were there protesting. I’ve been troubled by the absence of bereaved families, when it was said that details of 12 persons killed on that night had been compiled. Yes, one might fear to contradict a government narrative of ‘no massacre’ or ‘no shooting deaths’, but … You kill my child: what is it that you are now going to do to me when I complain and accuse you? I reject the approach of those who criticise demands for evidence as ‘supporting Buhari’, and demand that one should just Believe! I’m a Lawyer, and this is not a matter of faith.

So, for now, as regards that event, I have brought myself back to a position of re-opening my mind and awaiting the outcome of the Lagos SARS Panel proceedings. I know that as soon as it was set up, there were explanations about why people would not want to go there, and even asserting that no justice or truth about 20/10/20 can come out of the Panel; but in my view, if there is serious reporting of what is happening at its sittings (something more than that someone was looking at pictures of watches while the CCTV film was being shown, please), there would be material in the public domain for the public to consider. But, even without that, if the end result were to be a whitewash that discounted apparently credible evidence, well, the International Criminal Court is just one of the venues that would be open to those who can show that local remedies are compromised or unavailable.

Government’s handling of the situation? Mixed. Not bad up to the commendable acceptance of the Five Demands, but not very great after that. Its threats and alleged fines when matters are yet to be pronounced on, portray it as wanting to suppress facts, and the careless way that government officials and elected representatives describe any criticism or erroneous report as “hate speech”, only underlines that they cannot be trusted with the regulation of any media at all, let alone social media. It’s good that (if they attempted it) they seem to have resiled from trying to block the websites of some organisations that supported the #EndSARS protests (at least, I was able to access the three listed as having been blocked in Nigeria), and the withdrawal of charges against many people indiscriminately arrested after the riots was a good move here in Lagos.

But, what stands out is the government’s apparent inability or refusal to distinguish between the genuine cause for complaint against police brutality that the #EndSARS protests were and remain, and the extra baggage that others who had different and wider agenda tried to tag on to it (everybody flagging political cause tried to get its foot in the door opened by #EndSARS). As a result, government comes across as dismissing the whole #EndSARS movement, or treating the whole as a plot to unseat it. That is deeply counter-productive – for example, the apparently indiscriminate blocking of the bank accounts of those who supported the protests. It needs to be clear about understanding the #EndSARS protests as being against police brutality and make its case about other hidden agenda clearly, instead of just throwing out general smears, accusations of terrorism and such like.

The Ekiti State Attorney-General recently told Nigerians that politicians in the State are against the enforcing the State’s laws on rape and other gender based crimes. This cuts across most States in Nigeria. As a woman and a human rights defender, how can we ameliorate this problem?

The NJC the second time rejected the nomination to fill the office of Chief Judge of Gombe State, side-tracking the most senior Judge, Hon Justice Illiya, a female. What are your views about this, in relation to the role of gender and religion in appointments and elevation in public office in Nigeria? Cross River State also had a problem with the most senior Judge who also happened to be female, saying that because she hails from Akwa Ibom, she is a security risk! How do we stem this negative tide of gender discrimination, when other African countries like Rwanda have passed legislation making it mandatory for women to fill certain percentage of positions?

Since the passage of Violence Against Persons Act, there hasn’t been much progress in terms of domestication by many States, and even convictions. What could be lacking? How can the law be made to have some bite, to achieve its purpose? Likewise, several of the Northern States have refused to domesticate the Child Rights Act. What could be responsible for this?

If you don’t mind, I will answer your three questions about Gender Based Violence and discrimination against women together, though I really hate your “as a woman and a human rights defender” characterisation. I cannot claim to be speaking as a generic woman or indeed, as a generic human rights defender – only as myself. But, putting that rider on to such questions invites readers to filter my responses through those two lenses.

I didn’t see the statement by the Ekiti State Attorney-General, so my hope and expectation is that he was just giving information, and not giving an excuse for not enforcing the law, because politicians who pass a law and then oppose its implementation should be ignored. At least in those Northern States which have refused to enact Child Rights legislation, the legislators are not speaking out of both sides of their mouths (although it’s a question whether they are not presenting a false interpretation of their religion in their short-sighted willingness to stand against the rights of children). But, where a lawmaker makes a law and then doesn’t want it implemented, it’s difficult to take that lawmaker seriously.

We continue to have serious problems with GBV, and how can it be otherwise when not only is there not enough public leadership on the issue, but some public behaviour actively undermines solutions, as with recent reports that the ‘Slapping Senator’ had decamped to the ruling party. What kind of message does it send, when the President’s party welcomes someone who should be shunned and have his seat declared vacant if the reports are true (by the way, if the reports are not true, they should be loudly and widely refuted). And for what? Surely, only the tiniest political gain for the APC!

Unfortunately, the long delay before the confirmation of the President of the Court of Appeal gives the impression that the Buhari administration already has form in the area of gender discrimination. Yes, the President has appointed some outstanding women to positions in government, but if he is not ready to blow his trumpet on such appointments, it leaves a gap that is readily filled by the cases which appear to be discriminating against women. And while the examples of women being denied consideration for high judicial appointments are from the States which should be roundly condemned and rejected, is there a commitment to creating a national ethos on this?

What are your views on Restructuring? Is the 1999 Constitution satisfactory, requires tweaking as the Senate is trying to do, or should it be jettisoned for an entirely new document maintaining the Presidential system we are presently operating or reverting to the Parliamentary or some kind of home grown hybrid?

Honestly, I wonder if I have the energy for this issue. The term ‘restructuring’ means so many different things to different people. Both presidential and parliamentary systems have their pros and their cons. We know this.

I’m not sure what is meant by ‘tweaking’. The National Assembly has called for submissions. Those who care to do so can submit proposals, and it is the extent of such proposals that will show whether what results was ‘tweaked’ or is an entirely new document. After all, President Jonathan set up a national conference on the matter, but then did absolutely nothing about any of its recommendations. The ruling APC set up a committee on the matter, and again, did absolutely nothing about it. So, if what the Senate is doing is ‘tweaking’ – well, you know what they say about how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Of course, it’s a question whether the elephant will stand still long enough, or whether the whole carcass won’t be rotten beyond redemption before the meal is even half way eaten, but that’s another matter. For now, those with the capacity have balked at devouring the thing in total. So, tweaking may be all that remains.

Recent cases of terrorist or criminal attacks have brought the issue of State Police to the fore again, and that CSO panel on police reform that I mentioned, recommended a serious national debate on the subject – not least because of the fear that State Governors would want for themselves the same kind of operational control of the police that the President has (and which by the way, the panel recommended should be removed). But, we should not pretend that State Governments have not been inching towards their own form of law enforcement. What with Àmòtekùn in the South West, Hisbah in Kano and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, Lagos State we should be able to have some idea of where the gaps – if any – exist. It’s not enough to complain of not having the same powers as the police, because there have been persistent calls for intelligence-led policing. So, they need to examine their operations and see where that lack caused security lapses, whether because the police refused support, or because they didn’t have firepower, or whatever. Because when the police is actively pursuing journalists from Uyo to Lagos, or singers from Kano to Abuja, it would be strange if they were not providing requested support in other cases.

Lately, there has been a debate about our high cost of governance, and how it must be reduced drastically, so that it’s not just the people but Government/Public officials as well making sacrifices for the betterment of the nation. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t know that this is a debate: the only people who seem incapable of recognising the need to make sacrifices for the betterment of the nation, appear to be those actually in government. It’s always been my view that in politics, and indeed, in public life, the appearance is as important as the reality. My view that we need a bit more of the ‘low profile’ approach of the 1970s, has not changed. So, while it may be hypocritical to shun expensive cars, clothes and watches etc. in public while enjoying ‘better life’ in public, that is what we ought to have been seeing. No ghastly watches, no SUVs (unless locally made) etc. etc. Now, it may be that the locally produced SUV has been refitted with armour plating and so on, but we the public would not feel that we had entered into some

How would you rate the Buhari administration vis-a-vis fighting corruption and insecurity, revamping the economy and upholding the rule of law?

It’s hard to say – there’s been a lot of sound and fury on “fighting corruption”, but in the end, it is the right institutions and the right culture that will achieve results. Unfortunately, once the frontline people with whom we the ordinary public come into contact, be it police, airport workers, customs and immigration, civil servants and judicial workers or whoever it is, are unashamed about demanding graft for merely doing their job, then we continue to have a problem. Mind you, I’m not talking about situations where graft is demanded because you’re a smuggler, or other specie of wrongdoer, or seeking special favour, or access to limited resources, or even asking for anything that requires the public servant involved to exercise their discretion, just your ordinary entitlements. That part is up to both of us – to resist such demands – and to the government to back and uphold us when we do. Limited results there.

Corruption by public officials in awards and contracts? Certainly, more is coming to light, but I don’t follow the details deeply enough to say whether public procurement rules are adequate, or being properly followed. However, some of the things that we see from the President’s own party – palatial mansions, incomprehensibly ridiculous mausoleums, and an almost wilful refusal by some public officers to even tone it down (let alone go ‘low profile’) are bound to leave the suspicion that not everybody has got the anti-corruption memo. But, I must make special mention of the decision of the ICPC to back the excellent work being done by groups like TrackaNG who have not only been working to create that culture of expecting accountability among ‘we the people’, but also shining the spotlight on the awards and contracts side.

As I said, I chaired the CSO Panel on Police Reform in 2013. All the elements that we now see in full bloom today, were there then, whether it was impunity, extra-judicial killings, alienation of the population whom it is supposed to be protecting, corruption, police inaction or even suspected collusion with kidnappers, cattle rustling in huge expanses that the police simply did not have the equipment or wherewithal to counter, and so on. Naturally that report was presented to the Jonathan administration, but it was also presented to the transition team established by the incoming Buhari administration in 2015. So, if one is making the removal of insecurity a campaign point (and quite frankly, even if one is not), then one would expect these issues to be addressed with some serious new thinking and allocation of real resources. But, on the whole, while we have certainly had some of our Chibok Girls returned to their families, we still have 112 unaccounted for, and we also had the Dapchi Girls kidnapped with one of them still unaccounted for, it has been mostly a case of same old, same old.

When the Jonathan administration spoke obscurely about ‘enemies’, Boko Haram supporters within his government and so on, our response in #BBOG had been that a serious intelligence service should be able to counter those challenges and not allow them to detract from, or to be an excuse for the failure to provide security for Nigerians. So, even if there was – in addition to the major climate change push factors – an element of politicking in the farmer/herder clashes, the Buhari administration needed to deal with those and while providing solutions that would allow herders to herd and farmers to farm without clashing, ensure that perpetrators of violence were brought to justice.

I can’t say much about ‘revamping the economy’, but I do think that there is a serious intention to reorient our economy away from dependence on oil income, and I also recognise that this Coronavirus year has caused a lot of setbacks. Sometimes one can pronounce on this or that policy too early, but one thing I am certain about is that, without a serious attempt to tackle our exploding population, it’s unlikely that however revamped our economy may be, it will be able to keep pace. The refusal to address this has been a dreadful abdication of responsibility, since our ridiculous reaction to the Babangida administration’s proposals in that regard. Had we started making efforts then, by now – 30 years later – we might be seeing some benefit. As it is, we are already late.

I started to say that government’s observance of the rule of law has been mostly in the breach, but I realised that that would be me ignoring the fact that, for the most part, the rules and any resulting court judgements are obeyed. Unfortunately, when there are cases where they are not obeyed, that is the story. And, when those cases occur, they should be swiftly corrected, instead of roundabout attempts to change the rules or start nit-picking about the letter (rather than the spirit) of the law.

A Firm of Lateral Thinkers

In your career, which person has had the greatest influence on you and how? Leadership is influence. Good leaders can spot a creative mind, great leaders harness it; while some leaders drain all the intelligence and capability out of their team. They must be the smartest, most capable person in the room, these leaders often shut down the smarts of others, ultimately stifling the flow of ideas. Consider the HOD who daily holds court and mesmerises his team with his brainpower —forcing them to scurry to keep up with his thinking, rather than think for themselves and contribute their own ideas. Or the Partner who, despite having more than six first-rate Lawyers in his team (hopefully he recruited them all), listens to only one of them at meetings, claiming the others do not have much to offer. These leaders—are “diminishers”— they underutilise people and leave creativity and talent wasting on their tables.

How do we build a firm of lateral thinkers? As a result of the heavy reliance on precedents, Lawyers have been accused of perpetuating the “herd mentality” – the propensity for people’s behaviour or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong. Hence when you talk of lateral thinking, innovation and creativity, you sometimes sidestep Lawyers or law firms. In these times of uncertainty and turbulence when the needs and expectations of clients are continually evolving, firms have to let go of age-old dogmas and update their management paradigms to have a better chance at success. Lateral thinking would require mindset shifts – require that firms work differently and constantly reinvent, promote knowledge sharing and collaboration, and more importantly, commit to quick implementation of ideas – quick not hurried.

It is usually easy to identify vertical thinkers. They are guarded in their actions, minimalist in their words, not wanting to upset the apple cart, waiting to be told what to do. No spontaneity, no spunk, no punch, no pattern breaking, no challenging the status quo; they do not go beyond convergent ideas and common information. There are many business environments that nurture vertical thinking. They thrive on stories of yester-years, their eyes glow as they recount how it used to be and how it was done – the good old days. It’s all about maintenance. Vertical thinkers fall back on traditional notions. It is conditioned thinking that encourages a sequential or structured approach, in solving problems and making decisions. This kind of restrictive thinking may fall short in exploring other possibilities, or undoubtedly better ideas.

Another layer of vertical thinkers I have observed, are those that are not trapped in the sequence of the past or the familiar; these have vision, they see, but cannot see beyond their present realities. They have an eye defect called – myopia. They cannot see far or beyond what is right before them – they are conditioned chiefly by the familiar and by their business environment – “what others are doing”. The consequence is that what we elect to see or not see, impacts our reality or outcome. So, while they are obsessed with the competitor’s moves and fixated on the environment, there is no verve to their firm; rather the firm becomes a stockpile of untapped—or, even worse, thwarted—ideas, skills, and interests.

Creating Creatives

How does a law firm leader breakdown silo thinking, encourage teams to think creatively, break out of mental constraints in order to solve a problem and provide solutions? Are our staff mentally held down in tight leashes, and our offices’ mental cages? There are leaders who demonstrate they are capable, by nurturing a culture of intelligence in their firms. Under the leadership of these “multipliers”, employees don’t just feel smarter, they become smarter. They are given the freedom to experiment within agreeable boundaries. Picasso said, “others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not”. How do we build a firm of lateral thinkers? The how, why and why not questions should be allowed to bud and not reined in. Like Elon Musk of Tesla Inc. PayPal and SpaceX, put a bet on your team – trust yourself enough to trust them. Make your team an innovation hub, keep “thinking” alive within your team, stimulate, encourage, support, and reward innovative behaviour and thinking of people, permit the different views and experiences they bring to the table, do not dominate the team’s thinking by relentlessly pushing your own ideas. Otherwise after a while, they will leave you to it, and you will be surrounded by a team of “yes ma’ams.”

According to David Maister one of the bad habits of professional service firms is “systemic under-delegation” –What does this mean? It means that if you calculate the percentage of time the senior Lawyers in your firm spend doing work that a more junior colleague can do, (assuming the firm gets organised and adequately prioritises the recruitment and training of juniors). And, in carrying out this exercise, you ensure to deduct from the calculation whatever work clients insist must be handled by seniors; the result most of the time reveals that in a typical firm, 40 to 50% and sometimes more of the firm’s productivity capacity is consumed with higher priced persons performing lower level routine tasks – this is the meaning of inefficiency, unproductivity and wastage. Senior people neglect high value tasks that are critical to the future success of their firm, they compromise on – strategic planning, business development, client service, supervision, coaching and mentoring, personal development, etc. If 50% of the time the firm leaders are “too busy” doing things that with proper training someone at half or two-thirds their salary could do, then some bad compromise is going on within the firm. When this happens, you do not have a firm of lateral thinkers, more importantly, morale will run low over time, skill building poor and profitability threatened. Essentially getting the most from your team is vital all the time; but when the economy is weak as it is now globally, it is even more critical. Systemic under-delegation is not a game of roulette to subscribe to; rather we should be building a firm of lateral thinkers.

An Innovation-Supportive Climate

How do we create an innovation-supportive climate? The answer lies with leadership.

Several years ago, a study was conducted to answer the following questions: What are the differences between leaders who multiply intelligence among their employees and those who diminish it, and what impact do they have on the organisation? Though the study was focused on the IT, health care and biotech industries where organisational intelligence is a competitive advantage— I find the results relevant to law firms. 150 selected leaders in more than 35 of these companies, spanning four continents were selected, and intensive 360-degree analyses of many of these leaders’ behaviours and practices were conducted.

The results showed that lateral thinking is conditioned by an innovation-supportive climate, and that climate is created by leaders described as multipliers. A distinction was made between leaders that were multipliers, and those described as diminishers. The study found several critical differences in the mind-set, between the two types of leaders. The diminisher’s view of intelligence is based on elitism, scarceness, and inertia: They believe you will not find high levels of intelligence everywhere, in everyone, and they have less faith in people. The multiplier’s view, meanwhile, is much less cut-and-dried. This type of leader believes smarts are ever evolving, and can be cultivated. The critical question for these leaders is not “Is this person smart?”, but rather “In what ways is this person smart?” The job, as the multiplier sees it, is to bring the right people together, in an environment that unleashes their best thinking—and then stay out of the way. Bear in mind that, multipliers are not goody-two-shoes, overnice leaders. Although working for multipliers may be great, they have a hard edge. They expect outstanding performance, and drive their teams to achieve extraordinary results. It is clear that to have a firm of lateral thinkers, we have to lead differently.

Today, firms are more vulnerable to crisis than they were in the past. It is increasingly clear that failure is a reality, crisis is a reality, change is a reality. Firm leaders must explore in depth, how their organisations can take advantage of these as opportunities for innovation, for learning and for developing a competitive advantage, by leading differently. You can get more from your team, if you lead like a multiplier. So, while you may think you cannot ask for more from your people in these tumultuous times, it turns out you can. But, only if you are willing to shift the responsibility for thinking from yourself to your employees, willing to create the right environment, right motivation.— Specifically, multipliers manage five areas—talent, culture, strategy, decision making, and execution. These are very vital areas. On culture for instance -A firm of lateral thinkers work hard to develop the ecosystem, not just the work, but the environment. Too many fixed routines and cultural factors, can get in the way of lateral thinking. In depth internal collaboration can take years to establish, particularly in law firms with strong cultures and ways of working that, in other respects, may have served them well. It becomes harder to take the risk to innovate, or to put creativity at the heart of the firm. It is easier to maintain the status quo, and coast along with the excuse of serving clients. The rush to deliver work product to clients, should not undermine the cross-functional collaboration, continuous learning cycles, and clear decision pathways that help enable innovation. Multiplier leaders will find ways to embed innovation into the fibre of the firm’s culture, from the principal to the periphery – legal and support staff – they are inclusive in their approach. These leaders may set financial targets for innovation, using the appropriate incentives and rewards, they will constantly clarify purpose, responsibility and provide direction, build trust and even open themselves up for criticism. When these are ongoing, people become more focused and creative projects spring up.


At the end of the day, a firm of lateral thinkers strives for actionable and differentiated insights—the kind that excite clients and bring new solutions or markets into being. As Klaus Kleinfeld, the former Chairman and Chief Executive of Alcoa puts it and I paraphrase – If you understand what clients are struggling with, and you have a unique way of drawing from the viral intelligence of your teams to provide solution – finding a mechanism for how these two things can come together, i.e. client problems + team solutions will give you good returns. A valuable problem solved, a technology that enables a solution, and a business model that generates money, are the endpoints of every successful lateral thinking.

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