Eight days of class, learning for a lifetime— Three lessons from my time at Harvard Kennedy School

Eight days of class, learning for a lifetime— Three lessons from my time at Harvard Kennedy School

2177 1500 Almeer Ahsan Asif

Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC) history has a deep-rooted bond with Harvard University. It was there that BYLC’s founder, Ejaj Ahmad, while completing his Masters, conceptualized the idea of a program that teaches adaptive leadership while bringing together young people from different backgrounds. 

When I started working at BYLC, I was introduced to the name Ronald Heifetz, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, whose books ‘Leadership on the line’ and ‘Leadership Without Easy Answers’ were almost required readings for the Curriculum Development team. A few months back, I had the fortuitous opportunity to not only meet this leadership guru, but also attend a course under him.

From May 12 to 19, 2017, I attended Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education on the Art and Practice of Leadership Development (APLD) through BYLC.

Though the course duration was brief, only eight days in total, the class took up an intense eleven hours a day. There were about fifty other participants, coming from different countries, all practitioners of leadership in their own fields. Amongst them were CEOs & directors of different companies and NGOs, a police officer, a training specialist from the fire department, a pastor, psychologist, the Director of Marketing of Coca Cola, Germany, Senior Director of Human Resource of Phillips, Japan, & Senior Operations Officer of The World Bank Group.

The eight days of classroom discussions and interactions with other participants culminated to some intense learning and cathartic moments for me. Among them, I picked three key lessons that have made a big impression on my mindset, which I would like to share.

Lesson 1: People are multi-dimensional

J. Ibeh Agbanyim, another participant, was the first good friend I made in the class. Ibeh, an extremely humble being, is an expert on Organizational Psychology, and, to my surprise, an Amazon bestselling author.

It is from Ibeh that I obtained my first key learning at Harvard. During our session break, Ibeh shared a really powerful insight: how we, as human beings, are always making judgments and assumptions about others solely based on how others ‘look’ or where they ‘come from’. He once made a visit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where he was astounded by the magnificence and enormity of this God-made wonder of the world. His experience shaped for him a deep analogy that we can take a photograph of the Grand Canyon to capture the memory of the place, but the photo can never come near to resembling its vastness and immense natural beauty, even by the slightest amount. We simply cannot comprehend the true grandeur of the Grand Canyon just through a snapshot of it, and similarly, if we try to view human beings as a photograph, without considering the depth of their emotions and unique experiences, we will never do justice to them. He wrote a very meaningful article titled, ‘The Length, Breadth, and Height of Life’, published on April 14, 2017, where he writes, ‘Viewing life through the lens and depth from the Grand Canyon proves that life’s length, breadth, and height is larger than we know it. Therefore, live life gracefully and humbly’.

Lesson 2: Some things in life cannot be measured

Another important learning from Harvard is a lesson from Ronald Heifetz himself, the Faculty Chair. During his last session of the program, Ronald mentioned as one of his ending remarks that in today’s times, we have the tendency to try to measure everything in our professional and personal lives in quantifiable terms, like the amount of money we are making, the number of people we are trying to teach, or the time duration we are spending with our family. Ronald emphasized that some things in our life should not be measured, and the biggest example of that is the good deeds that we do for others. This made me reflect back on my experience of teaching at a government primary school, during a two-year Fellowship at Teach For Bangladesh. From time-to-time, I get this deep regret that I did not do enough for the sixty students I taught in the two-years of teaching. I might have been able to transform their views on giving their education priority, by even a little amount, but my contribution towards my students was not enough to transform their lives. After Ronald’s speech on how goodness cannot be measured, I tried to think of this one student of mine, who was on the verge of being forced by his father to drop out of school to work in a tea stall. Through persistent counseling sessions with the parents and the Head Teacher, I was able to convince the father to keep his son in school. The student not only came back to my class, at one point, he started to really engage in and love learning. There are other stories of small success from those two years, and when I focus on those instead of the numbers, it motivates me to do even more good.

Lesson 3: Fear of failure holds us back

My final key learning is based on another lecture by Ronald Heifetz, and to me, this is the most significant learning in the context of Bangladesh, centered on the way we are conditioned to view failure. Typically, we are steered by competition and success; it is ingrained in our system that the only way to move forward is to succeed. Driven by that fuel, people become concerned about the outcome, and often-times lose focus of the purpose of the work. Failure is a taboo word that is not discussed freely, and failing is something unthinkable, shameful. Failure constitutes of every pessimistic connotation there can be, and anyone who has failed is instinctively viewed disapprovingly. What Ronald emphasized on was that striving for success is of course extremely important, but if our narrow view of succeeding makes us afraid of failure, then it drastically reduces the potential of experimenting with something new and innovative.

So, a valuable lesson from this class for me was, ‘Give yourself permission to fail’. If we learn from our failures, then we can call it a learning opportunity instead of failure. We need to desensitize ourselves to the phobia of failure, as it will restrain us from going beyond our comfort zone and taking risks. What I realized was that maybe my entire life was a pursuit of achieving success in one form or another, and maybe that made me complacent. I ended up only making those choices which I knew would lead me to succeed, rather than aiming for something way beyond my reach. Now I know that if I choose to take a risk in life, even if I might not succeed in achieving it, I will most definitely learn a thing or two in the process.

These lessons have become very close to me, and as I move forward in life, I try to apply them as much as I can. Ibeh has erased in me the tendency to judge people based on their appearance or background, and to try to get to know new people better, paying respect to their depth of perspective and past experiences. Ronald Heifetz has taught me to not let ‘low numbers’ or the guilt of not doing enough consume me, but rather to celebrate the small achievements to keep motivating myself further. Furthermore, he went on to teach me not let my life be defined by materialistic success, but instead to allow myself to embrace failure if it arises, and catapult myself by learning from it.

Like many, I had always dreamed of visiting Harvard University, even if for just a tour of the campus. Little did I know that I would actually be participating in a very sought-after program in this highly prestigious institute, and making so many new memories, which have become invaluable to me. I will work hard to transfer my new learning to others by practicing them myself and using them in training the youth of our society in Leadership.


The writer is a leadership instructor at BYLC and Assistant Manager, Curriculum Development.

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