Ideas & Debate

When situation calls for urgent, bold leadership

Security officers at Nairobi’s Dusit office park on January 16, 2019 that was attacked by terrorists. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Tucked into a five-acre corner of Nairobi’s Riverside is a first of its kind office and leisure development called 14 Riverside. Straddled to the north by the Nairobi River and to its south, the Chiromo Campus student hostels, 14 Riverside is not easy to see from Riverside Drive and many Nairobians would have struggled to place its location, or even known of its existence before January 15, 2019.

John (not his real name) is a CEO of a medium-sized business that was based in one of the 14 Riverside buildings. Having heard the first explosion, he ran out of his office and encountered Martin, (not his real name) one of his team members who had yelled out “bomb” to all the staff in order to get their attention.

Without hesitation, Martin began mobilising staff to vacate the second floor offices through the fire exit. Speaking authoritatively and brooking no resistance, he pushed as many staff as he could out of the door, down the stairs and out through the fire exit where they ran northwards towards the emergency exit gate that the property had provided in the event of the very disaster that was now playing out.

The CEO recollects that he just followed the instructions as given, without thinking twice because of the way Martin ordered all of them to leave.

By the time Martin finally got down to the exit, he was unable to leave as the shooter was now in close proximity and he had to run back to the office and hide together with other staff. The good news is that they were eventually found and released unharmed later that evening.

As John recollected the story, he continued to marvel at how everyone submitted to Martin’s commands even though Martin was not a fire marshall or former military staff. It was simply the way he instinctively took charge and seemed to know what to do that led everyone to follow his instructions which saved lives.


Martin demonstrated situational leadership at a moment when there was very little time for the organisation’s leaders to think, plan or mobilise an emergency protocol. The worst situations can seemingly bring out the latent skills that lie within us.

The interesting thing about watching the DusitD2 attack as it unfolded on live television was that several different teams showed up, ostensibly to help immobilise the attackers and provide medical assistance to the injured. There was no panic, no scrambling about. Just methodical and controlled responses.

An operational zone was established that pushed back the media away from the hot areas. The Kenya Red Cross set up their control centre from which to provide psychological assistance and tracing of missing persons.

Different armed units rolled in and disappeared into what must have been a command centre somewhere within the bowels of the complex from which instructions were being given on who should go where.

And within 24 hours, the shooting was over. Over the following weekend, a few of the building’s tenants were allowed to go in and assess the damage. The feedback was amazing: other than damage caused by the bullets which shattered glass entry doors, most offices were left intact.

No personal effects disappeared. No mass looting took place. When we were told that the area was declared a crime scene and was sealed, that is exactly what happened.

The Westgate fiasco appeared to have drawn various learnings that were visibly applied. On the face of it, the emergency responses appeared to be well coordinated and singing from one command centre hymn sheet.

This is particularly so since our collective national trauma following the Westgate terrorist event in September 2014 was first caused by the dastardly shooting of innocent victims followed to a large extent by the horror caused by the “guys in charge” who were supposed to be leading a rescue operation.

From a recce squad that went in and pulled out in disgust following the accidental shooting caused by “friendly fire” to a troop of shopping savvy army soldiers who came out with as much gunshot residue on their fingers as they did items off the supermarket shelves.

To the families, friends and colleagues of those who died at 14 Riverside please accept my sincere condolences for your loss. Eternal rest grant upon them oh Lord and may perpetual light shine upon their souls.

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