Leadership Lessons from the JKIA Fire

A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold that the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field. While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on it. As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, it began to realize how warm it was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy. A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out. Then he ate him! Management Lessons: 1) Not everyone who drops dung on you is your enemy. 2) Not everyone who gets you out of dung is your friend. 3) And when you’re in deep dung, keep your mouth shut!

The Jubilee coalition government has had a fair amount of management tests thrown at it over the last four months of its young administration. There have been tests in labor relations generated by strikes and potential strikes from teachers and government medical staff. There have been tests in disaster preparedness and business continuity plans in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) fire last week. There have been tests in remuneration packages and benefits thrown in by members of parliament and governors. There have been tests in resource mobilization with the extensive debate over the VAT bill and what falls within the ambit of increased cost of living versus critical revenue generation for a government heaving under the burden of a horrendous recurrent expenditure budget. This has definitely been a classic case study of management 101 at its very best.

Of course we are all watching and waiting to see what the results of these tests will be. We are vested parties and interested stakeholders as the Jubilee coalition is managing the business of Kenya, of which we are all shareholders. Whatever decisions they make will definitely impact some or all shareholders positively or negatively. However what is interesting to observe from shareholders (read Kenyans on social media) was the reaction to the President’s visit to the scene of the fire early Wednesday morning. There were two extreme views on this action with one side waxing lyrical about the folly of such a visit as it would only interfere with the recovery operations and the other side saying that it was necessary to show support to the recovery teams. I read one post on Facebook which captured my sentiments completely: “Poor Uhuru, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.”

Folks, Uhuru is the CEO of Business Kenya. As any other CEO would do, he turned up at the scene of a massive disaster that would have ramifications on several aspects of the economy. As we are a month into one of the largest tourism attractions – the wildebeest migration – the airport is the focal point for the arrival and departure of a critical resource of foreign currency in this country: tourists. The airport is also the primary focal point for a second critical foreign exchange earner which is horticulture. Tons of flowers and vegetables which had to be shipped out could not move as airport operations ground to a halt. As flowers and vegetables are time sensitive, the whole value chain also ground to a halt as harvesting at the flower and vegetable farms has had to be reduced and in some instances terminated to prevent spoilage of produce as it awaits shipment at the cargo terminal. As one of three key regional hubs in Africa (Addis and Johannesburg being the other two) intra-African travel for traders and businessmen was unceremoniously brought to a standstill putting thousands if not millions of dollars at risk beyond the borders of just Kenya as they could not travel to or from their destinations which required transit through Kenya.

The President’s visit to the scene of a national and regional disaster is what any shareholder would expect their CEO to do. A CEO is supposed to take charge, get completely immersed in the details of the disaster and lead from the front in finding ways in which the business must continue. His presence gives assurance to customers (in this case passengers and exporters of all extractions) that the business is taking the disaster extremely seriously and it is receiving attention from the highest office. That his cabinet secretaries for transport and interior followed in quick succession with active participation in the business continuity process demonstrated the seniority levels being accorded to getting the disaster contained.

This was not a public relations exercise that social media analysts were inferring was in the making. This was management at work. That is how businesses are run. Dung drops, nay, rains from a hellish event and management are supposed to clean it up. In this case, coordinating the dung clean up will take a herculean effort of both people and ego management as well as rising above the very typical finger pointing that is going to result once the smoldering fires have subsided. It is because of this very likely scenario of internal bickering that a CEO has to stamp his authority and establish a presence that demands expeditious solutions rather than it-wasn’t-me-it-was-you time wasting discussions.

The government through @interiorKE, the Kenya Airports Authority through @kenyaairports and Kenya Airways through @kenyaairways have done an excellent job on Twitter in keeping the public informed of what’s going on in restoring normal services through the vital travel artery that is JKIA. Fact is they are all in deep dung. However, it’s our turn to keep our mouths shut and let them work!

Twitter: @carolmusyoka

  • Odhiambo

    If one is to explicitly acknowledge Uhuru as the CEO of Kenya, as you put it, then he needed not be at the scene. In case of a retrogressive event, a CEO, who doubles up as a technocrat with the best wholesome insights in a company (except in briefcase companies of Kenya), has the ability to quantitatively assess damage. Say the days it would take to have the services return to normalcy, tentative extent of damage to economy inter alia. Im at a complete loss to understand how our ‘CEO’ could have any significance being at the scene considering that the CS for infrastructure ,Eng. Kamau and Mr Ole Lenku, could not quantify the damage or give a synoptic security status days later and instead gave rhetorical statements full of vague generalities aimed to propitiate Uhuru. Investors don’t need superficial assurances as to the incendiary causes, what they need is to know their money(goods) is moving. I appreciate your line of thought though it does not seem entirely objective. It tends to lay bare your political subscription.

    • http://carolmusyoka.com carolmusyokacom

      Odhiambo, thanks for your views. It’s a pity that one’s views on an event can be reduced to an indication of one’s political subscription. Keep well.

  • Odhiambo

    Please allow me to take back what I said about your political inclination.

    • http://carolmusyoka.com carolmusyokacom

      Thanks very much Odhiambo