“Leadership is something that is good. Anything else is an abuse of power”, Mohamad Amersi, philanthropist, and CEO of Emergent Telecom Ventures said in his introductory speech at the inauguration of the Prince’s Trust International’s Leadership Program. This statement stayed with me throughout the two weeks I spent in the UK, where I had the honor of being 1 out of 80 young change makers selected from over 6000 applications.
The program consisted of leadership workshops with business psychology consultant, Pearn Kandola; an engaging public speaking workshop with Copywriter and Trainer at Let’s Do This, Al Brunker; and inspiring speeches and words of advice from various experts and leaders such as Kate Adie who was a former BBC correspondent, Nobel Laureate, Kailash Satyarthi, and former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. My expectations from the program were to enhance my own understanding of leadership so as to manage my own team better, make important connections with other people who are doing significant work in their own countries, and take back relevant lessons to contribute to the work being carried out at BYLC. In this article, I share some of my reflections on the key things I learned from the program, and the aspects of myself that I would like to improve on.
1. Have a clear and bold vision, and do everything to make it happen
The idea of vision is often overused in leadership workshops and motivational sessions where continuous talk about things like “a world without hunger and poverty” can start to feel unrealistic. But idealism is important. Dreaming and being imaginative about how you envision the world to be and the kind of legacy you want to leave is necessary in order to stay positive and navigate everyday challenges. The important part is to have clarity about the problems to solve, where you want to lead people, and why.
2. A good leader is both responsible and responsive
In his introductory speech, Mohammed Amersi very aptly said, “vision without action is a daydream, action without difference is a nightmare” and that our prolonged apathy has created a “globalization of indifference” that will haunt us till we start caring. I don’t think people are immune to the suffering of others, but are reluctant to take a stand when it threatens to disrupt their neatly organized lives. With the constant barrage of news about national and global tragedies, it’s easy to feel helpless or shrug issues off as someone else’s problem. But continuing to shirk our responsibility of bettering the world will only make our problems bigger. Developing a strong sense of responsibility within ourselves, taking ownership of the problems that affect us, and responding to them in different and creative ways is the real work of leadership.
3. Channel your emotions in positive ways
In his speech, Nobel Laureate, Kailash Satyarthi told a story about when he was 15, he attempted to tackle the issue of caste discrimination in his town by inviting the high caste people to eat meal prepared by the untouchable people in his community. Even though the high caste Brahmins all agreed and praised him, no one showed up on the night of the dinner. His noble intentions led to him being shunned by his family and community, and instead of being disappointed or giving up, he channeled his anger and sense of compassion towards helping those in need. His organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan has freed thousands of children from slave-like conditions.
Our urge to solve problems comes from a desire to help others. Most projects and organizations begin with that desire. But in trying to stay ahead, raise funds, quantify impact, project “success” and gain recognition on social media, we forget about the compassion with which we started our journey. This is partly because we are socialized to think that “success” requires us to be ruthless and hard-nosed, and that compassion and kindness indicates weakness. But leadership requires that we care. That we feel angry about injustice. That our hearts break over the misery of others. Then, we need to channel our anger and sadness and compassion in positive, productive ways to improve the human condition.
4. How you behave with other people really matters
Change cannot happen in isolation. One needs a team, allies, mentors, and confidants to make progress on a mission and thus we need to be aware of how we treat others. We need to develop the level of self-awareness that makes us mindful of how we relate to others and react with people in times of stress. Working well in a team requires that we understand the priorities and objectives of others, and that we take some time to acknowledge people’s hard work.
5. Develop the ability to converse and debate with people who have very different opinions from you
In his speech, UK diplomat, Sir Simon Fraser, stressed the importance of “trusting diversity” and having the confidence to surround yourself with people who are not like you. Personally, I have always had trouble speaking calmly with people who differ with me on certain topics. But as we have seen recently, shutting people out and building silos with only those who agree with results in disastrous results such Brexit and Trump. Even if we have dissimilar opinions, human beings have similar values and we are united by virtues of love and justice. It is up to us not to let our egos and selfishness blind us to that. Good leadership requires us to listen, recognize difference and seek commonalities.
6. Keep learning new things
I asked myself when was the last time I learned a new skill and realized that I hadn’t attempted anything new in a while. You are never too old to learn and we are lucky that we live in a time where opportunities to learn are literally at our fingertips. There are tons of resources and courses available online and books are now more easily available than ever before. We should read all the time, be it works of fiction or nonfiction, as reading can broaden our horizons and help us evolve. We can also learn new things by traveling extensively and encountering new people and perspectives.
7. Take a moment to think before you act
We tend to react quickly to things that make us angry, but it is important to take a moment to breathe and act with maturity. Life is too short to live with regrets, and we often regret the things we say or do when we let our anger get the best of us. So, before we are blurting out things we don’t mean or take reactive decisions, we should take some time to think. A popular method is to “sleep on it” and allow our consciousness to work it though. We might even learn to let of things that were never meant for us in the first place.
8. Good leaders must also be good followers
This was a lesson from Kofi Annan himself. We keep telling ourselves that we will lead change once we attain a certain position, but there are always learning opportunities when following in the footsteps of leaders before us and adding value to their work. Get involved in the issues that involve you. Volunteer for organizations that are aligned with your values. Learn from the lessons and failures of those who paved the paths for us.
9. Learn to be okay with being uncomfortable
Leadership requires the uncomfortable task of disappointing people, which is difficult when we have a desire to be liked. But you don’t necessary have to like someone to respect their leadership, so it’s important to trust your instincts and be comfortable with being disliked. We also need to feel okay with the idea that we cannot always have it our way, even when we believe we are right. Mistakes are inevitable, so we need to be adept at dealing with them. When we make mistakes, we have to make sure that we accept them and don’t get destabilized or dispirited. We should have the humility to admit our mistakes, and the grit to move on afterward.
10. Take better care of yourself
All the speakers mentioned the importance of taking care of ourselves. We tend to take a lot on, work long hours and in our efforts to come out on top we compromise on eating healthy, staying fit, and sleeping enough. Office work has also created a sedentary lifestyle where we spend hours sitting and stress eating shingaras. But all our efforts will be in vain if we fall ill or are too exhausted to think clearly. It’s important that we recognize when we are tired and need to take a break. It’s also vital to notice how we behave when we are tired, compartmentalize, and know to delegate tasks when necessary.
The ILP was a humbling and invigorating experience for me and the best part was meeting the other participants. There were people from Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Jordan, the Gulf countries, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Each of them rebels and change agents in their own unique ways. While the program itself was rich in content, I felt that I learned the most from my dinner table conversations with all the different characters. However, my best takeaway from the program was a strong sense of pride that the leadership curriculum at BYLC is truly outstanding. While teaching some similar lessons, BYLC programs take it a step forward by using experiential methods and focusing on work-centric leadership. The youth of Bangladesh need not apply to international programs to learn leadership skills. The best opportunity for them to develop themselves is available right here at home.