First – I listen.Manley Hopkinson
One of the most profound, but in essence the most simple leadership lessons I ever learnt, came from the wisdom and the lips of a King – King Solomon of Arawarien, deep in the Delta State of Nigeria. The words he spoke have stayed with me and became one of the key premises of all my work and particularly the foundation principle of compassionate leadership.
I was running some leadership workshops in Nigeria and met some extraordinary people, in particular one Chief Westham Adehor (his father liked football). We were discussing the relative merits of our two nations and our historical connection late into the night at the end of the leadership programme I was delivering. A lively conversation that changed the course of my life.
“Manley, I want to show you the real Nigeria. Give me a week of your life”.
So I did.
We toured the Delta and River states deep into the mangrove swamps and rural communities that, quite literally, man would not have ventured into for many years without an armed guard. I knew I was safe as I was with Chief West and his team; it was obvious how well he was regarded by all of the people we met.
With each community, we gathered, lit a fire and talked much about oil, opportunity, the appalling way the West has treated these communities and their desire to find a peaceful and equitable solution to their problems.
The momentum built. The crowds swelled. It sparked a media interest and a meeting was convened in Warri, near Part Harcourt where all the tribal leaders of the two states gathered for the first time for many years.
That day will stay for me as being a heady mix of many emotions – guilt as I represented the culture that has decimated much of this area, anxiety as I was not sure what would happen, how I would be perceived and what righteous anger might be directed my way, awe as I listened to the stories of both hardship and of hope and courage, and the final emotion of elation as all the leaders signed a single mandate for a peaceful resolution. Wow, what a day – but the lesson was still to come.
The next day myself, a number of other locals and an extraordinary man called Dai Davies (clearly a Welshman) a colleague of Chief West were taken to a village deep in the mangrove swamps and accessed across a bridge less river. Hundreds and hundreds of people lined the muddy streets as we were pushed into a clearing to see all the Chiefs and Kings of the day before now resplendent in their full ceremonial dress. I was made a Chief. My name is Chief Otemu Uremu the 1st, which translates as “the man who can talk and make happen”! What an extraordinary honour and one that I am acutely conscious of as it comes with an expectation.
After the ceremony the young King spoke with me and invited me to his home village.
“Thank you King Solomon, that will be an honour”
“Ah, but it is not a good story, Manley. My village is sinking in the swamp. The oil extraction has destabilised the land, the oil spills have poisoned our waters and killed the mangroves where the fish school. We have no choice but to move to a temporary shelter made for us by the oil companies”
Now I was dreading the visit. What would I see? What would they see in me?
As I approached I was amazed to hear singing coming to me above the noise of the tropical rain. Clear voices, some in harmony, some singing their own songs. I heard children playing then what I saw stopped me in my tracks. People were being forced from their homes, their homes for many generations. They had packed what meagre possessions they had onto makeshift carts and were pushing and sliding in the mud. But they were singing. Laughing. Helping each other. Friends and neighbours acting as one.
I turned to the King. “King Solomon, tell me your secret. You have asked your people to leave their ancestral homes and yet they seem happy. I see them all acting as one. What is your leadership power?
The young King took his time to answer. Feasting his eyes on the scene, he closed his eyes and, in a gentle voice, shared a wisdom that belied his years.
“Manley. First I listen”
That was it. That was it. As simple as that. Of course. How else could you start? How else could you know? How else could you understand? And if you don’t understand how can you act, how can you motivate, how can you inspire commitment, how can you relate and how can you lead?
You cannot. You simply cannot.
The Dalai Lama describes compassion as so; “If empathy is to understand, then compassion is to act on that knowledge with positive intent”.
Compassion is “understanding with positive action” and compassionate leadership is to “secure the best for all”
But we can only know what is best for all, by first seeking to understand.
First, we must listen.