April 2018, I excitedly headed downtown to the Radisson Blu for the Bush Fellows Retreat. It was going to be the first time all the 2018 fellows would be together. I had met a few of the fellows during the final stage of the application process, at the in person interviews. I looked forward to reconnecting with them and celebrating the fact that we made it. I was excited to meet others in the cohort and hear their stories. It was a given that I would meet wonderful people. I knew that it would be fun and challenging. I also knew that I would have the opportunity to think outside the box and stretch comfortably outside my comfort zone. I did not expect that the weekend would be a foreshadowing of my first six months on my fellowship journey.
During that weekend in April, it snowed, and snowed, and snowed! On that last evening, we went out for dinner. We walked to the restaurant through the skyway system. On our way back to the hotel, we took the same route, prepared to enter the skyway system and found the doors locked. We had to travel outside, in the blizzard. Some of us were prepared with jackets, hats and gloves. Others were not. However, together we braved the weather and marched in the middle of the road as fast as we could back to the hotel. Even through it was unexpected, cold and uncomfortable; it did not feel scary or particularly difficult because we did it together in community. By the time we arrived at the hotel, we were all smiling and laughing.
Just like the weekend retreat, I began my Bush Fellowship journey with a lot of expectations and excitement. I had plans and general ideas of what I wanted to do. However, life happened. In the midst of learning more about myself and making meaningful connections, I encountered some unexpected, uncontrollable circumstances. Some of these circumstances were uncomfortable; some forced me to juggle my schedule and priorities activities in a different way. I was able to make necessary adjustments and enjoy the fun times and the uncomfortable times because of the community around me: my family, friends and other fellows.
I used the time in the first three months of the fellowship to gain increased self-awareness - my strengths, weaknesses, the kind of leader that I wanted to be and the kind of leader that I was. After taking multiple assessments and reviewing the results, I started focusing on different practices I could develop to help me document and reflect on my journey. I read the book The Mindful Geek and started implementing a few mindful practices. In addition to better performance, studies show that mindfulness leads to increased innovation, improved level of charisma, and increased focus. I also started journaling. Initially it felt forced and I dreading sitting down at the end of the day to write down my daily activities. I changed the way I completed by journal. I started using journaling to document key decisions, expected outcomes and actual outcomes. I am using my journal to further fine-tune my strengths and document my leadership growth.
At the end of the summer, my father passed away. He had been sick for some time and I knew the end was near. Despite all of that, his passing broke my heart. I know that he is in a better place, free of pain and immobility, but I miss him so much. I was truly blessed to have had an amazing father who loved Christ and his family, who shared himself with us through his presence and his stories and who supported us in all of our efforts. Although there are times when thoughts of him make me cry, there are other times where some memory of him makes me smile. Now as we head into the holidays, I am reminded of my all-time favorite Christmas Eve, December 24, 1988. (My mom, my siblings and I were living in the US, but my father was still living in Liberia. Based on his visa status, he could not stay with us longer than 3 months. He used to travel back and forth between Liberia and Minnesota.) After we had opened our gifts at midnight on that snowy Christmas Eve, we heard the doorbell ring. We were all scared and ran upstairs to look down the large widow upstairs to see who was at the door. My mom flicked on the front door light as we arrived at the window. When we looked down, my dad looked up and we all screamed with joy to see him. My siblings and I ran downstairs, opened the door and jumped into his arms. What an amazing Christmas it was! I am dreading this holiday season, but I know that in community with my family and friends, I will be able to find moments of laughter and smiles.
In September, I started the Executive Healthcare MBA at the University of St. Thomas. My children helped make the first day of school exciting for me. Initially they were worried that I would be the only “old” person in my class. I reassured them that most people would be around my age. They made breakfast for me and took many first day pictures. In the first month, I took the class, Managing Self and Others. I was learned the science behind different leadership styles and the probability of being effective with each style. I am now taking the following classes: Management of Organizational Behavior and Overview of the Healthcare System.
I have truly enjoyed privilege of learning. We just finished a case study on Southwest Airlines. In a volatile market, Southwest Airlines led the industry with innovation, remained profitable for four decades and never laid off an employee due to economic downturn. The secret to their success appears to be their former CEO Herb Kelleher, and the organization he established. He entered the market not just to make money, but also to democratize the skies and make air travel affordable. He had a leadership style that was “fun” and “flamboyant”. In addition, he prioritized his employees above all and, in return, they exhibited excellent customer services. He was one of the few leaders that have the ability to drive for success in a fun, engaging environment. I want to be able to do that authentically. His favorite quote was “think small and act small and we’ll get bigger, think big and act big and we’ll get smaller”.
I love this quote. As I consider the goal of transforming as a leader, at times, I feel so ill equipped. I feel that transforming into the leader I want to be is a daunting endeavor. When I feel insecure, I think of Kelleher’s quote and focus on changing one small behavior or adding a small practice to my daily routine. I am confident that, in a year and a half, when I look back at all the small steps, I will have taken a significant journey.