It has been a year now since I started my fellowship in June 2017. It’s been a year, in most parts, filled with self-discovery, self-reflection, and looking inward with extremely positive results. From the application process to the multifaceted opportunities, throughout the year, to explore my leadership style, the process unraveled some of the most obscure aspects of my behaviors that was detrimental not only to my personal achievements but to the potential successes of the work I do. Two themes are pertinent in this thread of thought. The two themes are “I can do it all attitude” and my “tendency to lead from behind.” Discovering these aspects of my personality and leadership was astonishingly surprising to me to the point I started questioning whether I can ever overcome them.
Before I discuss more about the two themes that I want to dedicate this forum post, I want to highlight the role of the reflective process in discovering not only new elements of my behaviors but more about my personality, the way I deal with people, and the way my thinking process works. The many opportunities that being a Bush Fellow offered me to reflect on my inner thinking is immeasurable. I was able to reflect on the process of my decision making, the choices I make, and the way I react in certain situations including when under pressure and in unfamiliar territories. I have learned that I was stretched thin by saying “yes” to everyone and yielded to every demand. I have discovered that “I can do it all attitude” was ingrained in my DNA and enshrined in my value and belief system. I’m not sure how I developed this attitude in which I have this giant belief that I can do anything I want and that I can accomplish everything. This may sound good thing and arguably an explanation of how I get here and achieved what I have been able to achieve so far. However, we all know that our time, energy, and abilities are limited and the more we streamline these indispensable resources to achieve specific goals the more likely we are to succeed. No one can do everything and that is why people dedicate their lives to special areas and in narrow fields. I have also found out that I value and respect more of other peoples’ demands more than I commit to myself and to my individual needs. This tendency to honor and commit to others in my community, circle of friends, family members and in the larger society may stem from my early upbringing and my strong belief in the Islamic faith. Serving others and being the “burning candle” to light the world is a central principle in our belief system. My first recollection of serving others started in the Kenyan refugee camps where, as a teenager, I found myself volunteering at the makeshift hospital in the Liboi Refugee Camp. There were widespread diseases, malnutrition, and a huge infant mortality in the camp due to poor sanitation and lack of clean water. Because of my fair English language skills, I was very valuable to the International volunteers from Medićine San Frontiers (MSF) and Amref Health Africa to facilitate communication with the newly arrived refugees. During my time as a translator and interpreter with the international health officers, I have seen the life and death difference that an action by a single person can make. In those extreme situations, the value of life and the true face of humanity was represented in the 24/7 non-stop work of the health workers and volunteers including me. May be this experience has something to do with my tendency to feel for others and put others in front of my needs but I know that I have always enjoyed making a difference and helping others. With that said, I have now realized that I have not learned to say “no” and when to say “no” to focus on what matters. In one of my coaching sessions, the question of “What is your work?” came up and I knew that I have not really succeeded in defining my work and focusing on it. Rather, I was involved in a number of non-profit organizations that mainly serve the East African and Muslim community, supported local and international humanitarian initiatives. I have been very involved in the religious, educational, social, and political activities throughout the state, nationally and sometimes back in East Africa. Although, I did not lose sight of my true passion and making a difference through education and nurturing young people yet I have not been able to focus to make significant strides in my field.
Another equally surprising and interesting finding about my leadership style was my ‘Leading from Behind’ tendencies. I have never realized how much of my decisions and interactions with my colleagues were defined by this behavior and tendency to lead from behind. I have found out that I tend to work with teams and enjoy collective success. My best ideas are born out of the discussions and debating with my team. In fact, my ideas are actually crystallized and affirmed through thinking out-loud and listening to the viewpoints of others. I have realized that I don’t like taking credits for my own work or ideas and rather prefer sharing with others or ascribing the credit to the group as a unit. I tend to empower people around me at any level and feel joyous and happy when I see them succeed or accomplish tasks. It’s astonishingly amazing to figure out that standing out or being acknowledged did not appeal to me but rather it bothers me. This is a stark contrast to the egoistic and individualistic behaviors that prevails in the interactions of many leaders I met. These behaviors lead, in most cases, to internal conflicts, peer competitions, and unhealthy work environments in many work places. I’m not sure if one approach is better than the other but I have realized that I was buried in the rubbles of everybody else’s interests and wants. I now feel that much of my energy and time was willfully misused by others who figured out my open heart and my deep passion for being in the service of others.
Getting the time to reflect on my behaviors and why I make certain decisions was the best gift that I can ever receive. Thanks to Bush Foundation. Although figuring out my leadership challenges is just half the puzzle and that knowing something does not equal to doing something, I know I have taken the first step to change it. I have learned to stay within my priorities and focus on my work. I have learned to say “no” to many of the demands that overwhelmed my calendar without feeling guilty about it and being proud of controlling my schedules. I have started taking credit for my work without feeling shame or placing it in the middle and it’s changing my outlook about the nature of relationships. It feels good.
In my last few words of this forum post, I would like to share a mindboggling experience I had in attending this year’s 99U Conference in New York few days ago and some of the lessons I have learned from it.
The theme of the conference was “Challenge Everything” and speakers revisited it throughout their talks. The collective presentations provided different images of the same theme through their personal and professional experiences. Presenters walked us through their journey to successes filled with sweat, tears, self-doubt and sometimes nearly-giving-up experiences. Quotes like “there is no right way to do things” proclaimed by Tina Ruth; the founder of Creative Mornings to “Innovation relies in challenging the status quo” by Todd Yellin; the current Vice President of products at Netflix were shared with passion and with firm belief. The speakers vigorously reminded us that each one of us is iconoclast but only needs to discover it in a way that is meaningful.
The biggest challenge to my leadership style came from Todd Yellin when I felt that he removed the mat under my feet by demolishing what he called the “culture of consensus” and encouraged the attendees to “toss away hierarchy when it comes to good ideas.” This was a direct confrontation to my firm belief that “consensus” is key to healthy and stable systems that thrive through deliberations and finding common ground. Mr. Yellin turned my whole leadership style upside down by calling us to “set the table for dissent” and to give an opportunity for “good ideas” which can come from anyone at any level in the organizational hierarchy. My leadership style is largely based on the shared leadership model where the concept of giving room to new ideas is present since every stakeholder is engaged in the decision-making process. However, there are some elements of seeking consensus in the shared leadership model to transform an idea into a policy and move it to action. One caveat Mr. Yellin provided was that, in giving room to new ideas, the experience, background, and credibility of the person presenting it should be given precedence. In this frame of thinking, he concluded that “the loudest voices should not control the conversations.”
As the theme of the conference “challenge everything” embodies, my experience in this conference was a lifetime experience and I will continue to revisit the cross-cutting ideas that was presented. I will continue to grapple with the thought about the space between ideas and actions. I will continue to think about the value of not only great ideas but the practice that transform good leaders to great ones. I would encourage other Bush fellows to consider attending future 99U Conference.