Leadership lessons from Emir Sanusi’s dethronement

After a little over five years, the reign of His Highness Muhammadu Sanusi II as the Emir of Kano was brought to an abrupt end on Monday, March 9, 2020, consequent of a resolution of the Kano State government to depose the second most powerful traditional ruler in Northern Nigeria. Secretary to the State Government, Alhaji Usman Alhaji, said in a statement that the removal, executed in compliance with Part 3 section 13 of the Kano State Emirate Law 2019, was as a result of Sanusi’s insubordination to the state government and meant to safeguard the sanctity, culture, tradition, religion and prestige of the Kano Emirate built over a thousand years.

Sanusi’s deposition was the climax of the strife which started between Governor Abdullahi Ganduje and the former Emir in 2017. The governor, having initially failed to remove Sanusi through the instigation of a probe of the emirate council’s finances, whittled down the influence and power of the Emir by splitting the Kano Emirate into five. Still not satisfied with the conduct of the former Emir, the state government came up with a new law which formed the basis for the dethronement of the Emir.

However, irrespective of there being no love lost between the governor and the Emir, the deposition could have been averted had the latter toed a different path and adopted a different strategy.

Here are leadership lessons from the Sanusi saga.


Never outshine the master

In every sense of the word, Sanusi is better than Ganduje. Sanusi is of royalty, Ganduje is not. Sanusi is urbane, Ganduje is not exactly that. Sanusi has carriage, Ganduje cannot really lay claim to that. Sanusi has the gift of the gab, Ganduje lacks it. So, Sanusi had the edge in all things but one; Ganduje was the boss. Sanusi, as Kano Emir, did not see himself as being under the governor. He never submitted to the governor. He saw himself as being better than the governor and strove to outshine him. This riled Ganduje and goaded him to oust the former Emir.

The first law in Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power is never outshine the master. Anyone who tries to outshine the master will have a sorry tale to tell because he who has the final say has the ultimate power. Since the boss has the final say, he will show the subordinate who tries to outshine him the door.

Even if you are better than the boss, you will be doing yourself a world of harm if you make it obvious because the boss will see your actions as meant to undermine him and will fight back. He will spare no effort to destroy you. If you are better than your boss and keep drawing attention to that, what you are invariably doing is that you are making the boss look incompetent. Even if your boss is an angel, he will cut you to size if you consistently make him look incompetent. If you make your boss look incompetent, he will make you irrelevant. As Emir, Sanusi tried to make Governor Ganduje look incompetent. The governor fought back by relieving him of the throne.

However, if, in spite of the edge you have, you submit to your boss, he will not see you as a threat. He will be your cheer leader and take it upon himself to sing your praise to high heavens. Anyone who competes with his boss sets himself up for an unwinnable battle.


Always say less than necessary

Of a necessity, leaders must communicate with those they lead. Without communication, vision cannot be understood, without communication, people cannot be motivated into action. Therefore, communication is critical to leadership. However, a leader must know when to speak and when to hold his tongue.

Naturally, Sanusi is a smooth speaker. He has the power of persuasion. That combined with his exalted position as the Emir of Kano, made his words very powerful. However, his undoing is that once he begins a speech, he never wants to stop until he has said everything he has in mind. As a rule, leaders refrain from saying all they have to say, they say less than necessary. But Sanusi as Emir, said more than necessary. He spoke against the political elite of the North, he spoke against the government and spoke against the culture of the people he led. If that had come from other quarters, it could have been ignored, but coming from the Emir, who had unfettered access to those he spoke against, it was treated as an abomination.

Words are like salt, when you don’t have it in a food, the food is tasteless, when you have too much of it, the food becomes distasteful.  If you say less than enough, you leave the people yearning for more. But if you say more than enough, you leave them yawning.


Never push for too much reform at once

Sanusi has a reputation as a reformer. As CBN governor, he presented himself as a reformer who made difficult decisions to save the banking industry. On August 13, 2009, he sacked the managing director/chief executives and executive directors of five banks namely, Afribank PLC, Finbank Plc, Intercontinental Bank Plc, Oceanic Bank Plc and Union Bank Plc for high level of non-performing loans in the banks, which was attributable to poor corporate governance practices, lax credit administration processes and the absence or non-adherence to the bank’s credit risk management practices. Less than two months later, Sanusi’s axe fell on the CEOs of three other banks; Bank PHB, Equatorial Trust Bank and Spring Bank.

Sanusi took his reform agenda to the throne ignoring the fact that while the banking industry is a modern institution which could respond swiftly to revolutionary reforms, the throne is a traditional institution that would only appreciate evolutionary reforms. As Emir, Sanusi wanted the immediate reformation of a culture that had existed for centuries. When he started his reform advocacy, he had many of the leaders in the North on his side, but as time went by, a number of them abandoned him.

While the statement by Mrs Carolyn Carter, a former American First Lady, that “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be” is true, if a leader travels too fast ahead of his followers, he will lose them. A leader remains one for as long as he has people following him. When a leader gets to the point that the people are no longer with him, his leadership is lost. So, in campaigning for changes or reforms, a leader has to be sure that he is not too far from the people he is leading.


Master the art of timing

One of the most critical factors for success as a leader is the understanding of the times and the trend. Those who lead or aspire to lead must learn to read the times well and interpret it correctly. Those who move ahead of the times would be sacrificed while those who are too slow would be relegated. While there cannot be progress without change, timing is critical to making change work and workable.

According to Victor Hugo, a French poet, novelist and dramatist, “No one can resist an idea whose time has come. Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come. Armies cannot stop an idea whose time has come.”

What determines whether the time is right for an idea is the buy-in it enjoys from critical stakeholders. Without the critical stakeholders buying into it, the reform would fall flat and the champions would be sacrificed. From all indications, the former Emir never bothered to get a buy-in from the critical stakeholders before he started advocating for the change he wanted to see in the North. Consequently, it became obvious that the timing was wrong. And as always, the champion of an unpopular change had to be sacrificed.


Ignaz Semmelweis

At a time when mortality rate in doctors’ ward was three times that of the midwives’ ward at Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and scientist, came up with a theory that hand washing could reduce mortality to below 1 per cent. But this outraged his colleagues at the hospital who interpreted the theory to suggest that they were responsible for their patients’ deaths because they didn’t wash their hands after handling cadavers.

Despite the fact that in 1847, ahead of his last discovery, Semmelweis had earlier discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics, he was staunchly opposed by medical authorities who invited him to defend his theory. Not satisfied with his explanation, he was spurned and subjected to ridicule. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed into an asylum by his colleagues. He died 14 days after as a broken man.

Today, hand washing is a practice that is not just observed by medical practitioners but all men and women who value hygiene.

Why did the change Semmelweis advocated fail? It failed because it did not enjoy any buy-in from critical stakeholders.

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Never appear too perfect

Success attracts envy and envy breeds hatred. When it appears as if everything you touch turns to gold, you have to be careful because what you are unwittingly doing is providing a reason for those who are uncomfortable with your success to hate you more and work for your fall.

Without being an Emir, Sanusi was already a success. He is everything some people will never be. His life looks like a chapter from a work of fiction. From being a General Manager in UBA, he became an executive director in First Bank, he later became the MD/CEO. He had not served out his term in First Bank when he was named in 2009 by President Umaru Yar’ Adua as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and as soon as he was through with that, his grand uncle, Emir Ado Bayero, died and paved the way for him to be named in his stead. Everything seemed to work well for him. So, without even offending them, some people begrudged him of his good fortune and wanted him to fall. This is known as the crab mentality. If 30 crabs are put in an open bucket for 30 hours, none of them will come out because each one that attempts to escape would be pull down by others.

The best way to ward off enmity resulting from your success is to be humble. So, while his good fortune couldn’t have been his fault, Sanusi could have managed it better by being a little humble. As an Emir he was perceived by a cross section of the North as arrogant. He was seen as blaming others for a problem that he could not absolve himself from. So, this made many people in the North to be resolutely opposed to him. Hence, his deposition met with little or no resistance from his subjects.


Last line

With patience and humility the staunchest opposition melts like wax.



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