“I am in awe of a Fellow who travelled from Philadelphia to NYC at 9pm and who had to be back in Philadelphia by 12noon the next day. He wanted to be with his 6 year-old daughter on the morning of her birthday if only for a few hours. That is the type of leadership by example that matters – caring and giving a sense of purpose & importance. Children are the future.”
47 days, 11 towns and over 40 meetings later, the 2013 Eisenhower Fellowship program is over. All 23 of us from 21 different countries have been let loose out into the world to try to better the world around us. For many, it has been an admittedly life changing experience even for those who have lived, schooled or worked in the United States before. In the end, especially at the end, the experience was as much about pursuing our individual interests as it was about being together as a group.
As the days spun into weeks away from home, constantly in motion, perpetually sharing our stories of our worlds and surprising ourselves with what we learned by seeing ourselves through others eyes, we all learnt more than we thought we would from the program. Some of what I learned I already knew and thus found validation in the affirmation, for some I discovered new
layers to what I thought I knew and the rest was completely new. However, taken together, there are certain themes which bring all the lessons home to me as a Nigerian.
What is leadership? Who is a leader? What does leading look like? Is there a framework for leadership that works in every context and every situation? Are there leadership values which endure through time and stay the same regardless of how much things seem to change technologically? Should leaders follow the will of their people or should they lead their people biting and scratching to higher visions?
In our group, we had at least 5 PhDs, two elected representatives from Finland and New Zealand, two business tycoons, consultants, several government representatives, academics and quite a number of people running their own non-profit organizations.
Some were insistent that leadership cannot be taught in a class and that what makes each leader unique is their values and integrity, while others believe, that people can be trained to lead in different situations – i.e., that we do not all have to be Gandhi but things we are exposed to – theories, principles, the experiences of others, can serve as a useful guide to becoming more effective as leaders…or is this really management, as another group argued. Management is not leadership some decreed. The discussions provoked thought and brought appreciation for and empathy with those who find themselves in leadership positions but there was no consensus.
Last Thursday, we got the chance to spend two and half hours discussing leadership with General Powell, the Chairman of Eisenhower Fellowships Inc. and agree with the man’s politics or not, he distilled leadership into an essence which no one seemed unhappy with. Or maybe some were
too in awe to disagree.
Powell told us that all he knew about leadership he learned as a young recruit in the army and the lessons there had served him in every situation he had found himself in since. Through the anecdotes and discussions he believes the main characteristics of a leader are: selfless, exemplary, moral courage, vision, high standards, constant (re)evaluation and integrity.
And after strict distillation, there are two key things leaders need to provide: purpose and support. People need purpose to drive and inspire them. Powell said as Secretary of State he made it his responsibility to help everyone in the organization understand and embrace his or her purpose, including the office cleaner whose purpose was to ensure that the Department could function effectively and was in a constant state of preparedness for guests and employees. The support required from a leader is to ‘give the team what it needs’ – training, tools, compensation, recognition, feedback, appreciation etc. According to him ‘leaders should be where they can
influence the action’ and warned that changing processes and tools is not enough…leaders had to change the ‘brain ware’. Has the brain ware of our army changed since the last State of Emergency or Baga? Will the State of emergency fundamentally change anything? Of every man we know intent on contesting for elections in 2015 – does anyone have 50% of these characteristics?
A sense of community matters
Whether as a family, a group, a neighbourhood, a town or a country, a sense that each person’s well being is connected is important. Despite resentment by some the redistribution of wealth and access to opportunities through taxes, laws, social policy (affirmative action, universal health etc.) ensures that a sense of belonging exists. Injustices at home, oppression at work, disregard of children and marginalization of young persons; all these things will eventually erode any community. In many countries, through the narrative of the creation of the nation, citizens are given a sense of identity larger than themselves. The US is built on a notion that ‘one person can change everything’ – this is why someone will loose a child to a drunken driver and start a campaign to ensure others don’t suffer the same. Ironically, wrapped up in the strong sense of ‘I’ is the understanding that ‘we’ is important. It is this very sense of community that drives an organsiation such as the Eisenhower Fellowships and many more like it, to ensure that people from all over the world – not just the US are brought together to form bonds to ensure that
future leaders understand the notion that we are all in this together. And it is the same sense of community that drives the philanthropy that sees both wealthy and ‘just managing’ dig into their pockets to fund the arts, the sciences, research and community development.
Here, it is hard, in the face of the human response to the Boston bombings not to despair at our own nonchalant response to the plight of Nigerians murdered in hundreds daily, brutalized by robbers, kidnappers, deadly health care and so much more.
The children really are the future
In most societies, people want the best for their children – they want their children to lead better lives than they did. However there are benefits and disadvantages to most things and in many conversations the impact of technology on personal communications especially with children was highlighted as often as the wonders of technology in transforming education. South Korea, Singapore, Finland, China are all leading the way in terms of education and sparking interest in science and technology in their children because this is where the future lies – in tandem with the arts and the humanities.
I think of Nigerian children alternately blessed and cursed with TVs in every room and every latest gadget imaginable, who finish primary education without once having to put together a science project. They have never been tasked to look around and create something with their hands or improve on something. We are grooming future generations of consumers instead
of inventors and paying no attention to our education and science & technology policies and budgets.
At the end, regardless of who we are and how our experiences shape and frame our interaction with the world, there are still some truths, some basic common denominations that we all share regardless of race, ethnicity, income, gender or religion. And this is what binds all human beings.
These commonalities are what should make it easy for us to cross the complex diversity bridges because we all shed tears the same way- in sorrow and in joy. This is what should drive the thinking of all leaders truly concerned with bettering the world around them.