October 25, 2013

The Power of a Humble Leader

Imagine twenty CEOs sitting together in one room. They are young, all under thirty, but have each steered ideas into initiatives, passion into promises. They have recruited others to join their cause, and together they answer to the populations whose lives they seek to change—sex workers in Delhi, commuters in Chile, millions without electricity across Africa. Each has made enough strategic decisions throughout their young careers to land them a seat in this room. From hundreds of applicants, these 20 social entrepreneurs from 18 countries were chosen as Laureate Global Fellows through a partnership between the Sylvan Laureate Foundation and the International Youth Foundation

From October 4-11th, these young leaders convened in São Paulo, Brazil at the 12th annual Laureate Global Fellowship retreat. Here at YouthActionNet, this event is the highlight of our year—we spend the week facilitating a vigorous leadership training that emphasizes experiential learning and leverages the individual expertise of each Fellow. Over meals and during sessions, we connect with these twenty young people who share insights that help us tailor our initiatives to their needs. As a young person myself, it is always incredibly inspiring, and admittedly daunting, to build relationships with peers who have already sacrificed and accomplished so much. They seem like superheroes. 

What surprised me, though, was that they didn’t always see themselves the way I saw them. On multiple occasions throughout the week, Fellows revealed to me that after reading the other Fellows’ bios, they couldn’t believe that they had been selected. Basant Motawi, who combats sexual harassment in Egypt, was the first I heard this sentiment from: “I’m surprised you chose me…I am only running community-based advocacy campaigns with less than 100 volunteers. The other projects are so impressive!"

Basant and I
I explained that not only was her community-focused strategy smart, she was also doing this work through a volatile situation in a country that desperately needs women like her to take a stand. In a personal blog post following the retreat, Anna Oposa, founder of Save Philippine Seas, revealed “[Fellows] are all doing such game changing, trailblazing work in their countries. I honestly felt like a poser there.”

Too often we look at successful young leaders like Basant and Anna and think they must be so self-assured; they must have all the answers. We compare them to other youth in their age group, and see them as the exception. The truth is, these young CEOs are flying by the seat of their pants as much as the fledgling leaders who applied but were not selected as Fellows, as much as all of us are. They are poised for success, but still vulnerable to failure. 

As humans, our brains respond more intensely to negative events than positive ones. We dwell on failures—the grant we didn’t get, the interview we stumbled through, the beneficiary we couldn’t help. From the Fellows, I learned that sometimes it takes seeing our accomplishments through someone else’s eyes to truly begin to appreciate our impact on the world. 

Throughout the week, I observed Fellows tell their stories, in small groups and on stage in front of hundreds. The audience, whether 5 or 500, listened with rapt attention. With smiles, or tears in their eyes, listeners asked follow-up questions and were inspired about issues they didn’t know existed minutes earlier. 

During a town hall panel discussion with students from our host Universidade Anhembi Morumbi, Fellow Katy Digovich, founder of Positive Innovation for the Next Generation (PING), said “Surrounding yourself with people who think the impossible is possible is critical.” 

Fellows share a design thinking prototype
By sharing their stories out loud, Fellows began to realize that they have already done the impossible. During the Design Thinking session, Fellows spent over an hour interviewing Gitanjali Babbar, who works through her organization Kat-Katha to improve the lives of sex workers in brothels on GB Road, the largest red light district in India. Their mission was to understand how her organization operates so that they could design new ways to approach its challenges. As questions flowed, Gitanjali began realizing that what seems routine to her is intensely complex and astonishing to others who are unfamiliar with the sex trade in India. 

As she explained her strategies to gain access to each brothel, and earn the trust of the women inside, her accomplishments became all the more spectacular. Gitanjali smiled when listeners exclaimed “You really do that!? But isn’t that dangerous?” By the time they got to the prototyping stage and were planning an event to unite the sex workers, someone asked “Would it be possible to shut down GB road  for a few hours to have a fair?” Gitanjali hesitated, turning her head side to side. “Yes. Anything is possible.”

Carolina and Gitanjali
While sharing their stories with the group helped Fellows see their accomplishments in a new light, the fact remains that many questioned their place in the group from the beginning. The conclusion I draw from this is that no matter the success young social entrepreneurs have achieved, validation in their ventures, and their ability as leaders, remains critical. 

The YouthActionNet program is designed to intervene at a delicate juncture in the life of a young leader—with over two years demonstrated impact, each Fellow has come far enough to be able to see just how much still needs to be done to achieve his or her mission. They aren’t jaded, but they understand that it takes more than passion to maintain a sustainable operation. Without a network and community of support, without external validation, the road to scale and systems change is a lonely one, if it’s possible at all. YouthActionNet is here to encourage young leaders to take the next step, with certainty that the journey ahead will be a shared one. 

Learn more about the 2013 Laureate Global Fellows and watch this video about their 'can do' spirit.
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