‘Charismatic’, ‘brave’, ‘daring’, ‘motivating’, ‘confident’ – these are just a few of the numerous words we hear when the qualities of a leader are described. We hear about leaders like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and we hear about what great ‘visionaries’ they were. Sometimes, however, ‘inspirational’ stories of these great ‘influential’ figures derail our understanding of the true meaning of leadership. The young generation of today is constantly being fed the idea that they have to be ‘big leaders’ in their fields, and in order to achieve that position, they must inherit the ‘big attributes’ portrayed by big leaders. Focus is then turned away from the work of the leaders, which is actually the most important aspect, and turned towards how to become charming, appealing, poised, and the list goes on. read more
This article was originally published in Star Weekend, The Daily Star.
”What makes a leader?”
This question was asked by the lead instructor, Khaled Saifullah, to my class, on the first day of the Building Bridges through Leadership Training (BBLT) program at BYLC. Each of us produced different answers. One participant said, “A leader is someone who mobilizes people”. Another said, “A leader is one who takes initiatives”, “A leader is someone everyone looks up to”, “A leader motivates, inspires and represents people,” the comments poured in. Khaled Bhai neither refuted any idea nor did he rule one as accurate. Geared up with pens and notebooks, we all waited intently for him to give us the answer. A moment of silence ensued, accompanied by confusion. We looked at one another, some of us shifting in our seats, others trying to hide their growing anxiety. As the restlessness became palpable, we waited for him to relieve our tension. There came no answer and on that momentous first day we never ended up learning what qualities define a leader. But this was only the beginning.
The BBLT journey, for me, was a rewarding experience, one that tore at my convictions but exposed me to a world of opportunities. Thrusting myself into new territory, I was able to transcend the limits of thought, and gained the confidence to initiate action addressing social issues that are important to me.
Once we were equipped with the rights tools, the second phase of the program required us to implement what we learned in the real world and catalyze social change. This was the hard part; no matter how many books you read on leadership, nothing can prepare you for practical situations, if you lack the knowledge acquired by experience. My teammates and I chose a makeshift school for the street children in the vicinity of Panthokunja Public Park, as we were familiar with the area. After brainstorming different ideas and assessing the site, we came up with a plan to help the school.
We felt that, in addition to poverty alleviation, lack of access to essential services such as primary education, basic healthcare, water sanitation, nutrition, etc. are the most pressing issues and overarching challenges facing Bangladesh. Due to lack of access to essential services in underprivileged communities, our group, Project Lighthouse, decided to work on raising awareness about education, health and hygiene among the underprivileged children attending the school, as well as delivering modest support services to improve their standard of living. However, since we only had modest resources to aid our project, we decided to focus on education and sanitation. We planned to donate an electronic projector so that they could learn from different visual mediums, and to install a portable toilet to ensure better sanitation.
The challenges we faced to achieve our mission were formidable. One such instance was when we realized that it is easier said than done to install the toilet. We needed prior permission from City Corporation before we could put it in place. The City Corporation recognized the importance of the matter for provision of sanitation facilities to the community .It was fortunate for the community and us that they agreed to donate a toilet from their own resources. We then had to revise our plans, but it could not overshadow the joy and satisfaction of making a small difference in the lives of those students.
So, back to the question at hand, ‘what makes a leader?’ Without having the answer laid out in front of us, we learned what we needed to through experiential sessions. It is this heuristic approach to learning that enabled us to discover our potential and develop qualities attributed to leaders. Going into the program, we all had our individual concepts about what ‘leadership’ meant and we realized that none of them can be ruled out as either accurate or otherwise. But one thing that we learned on Day 1 is that when there is a crisis, a leader is one who does not look up to authority for answers.