How I’m learning to be a leader


This unassuming picture is one of the first places Stephen Little and I enjoyed coffee when arriving at Ashesi University in May. At that time, the enthusiasm I’m sure many nascent development practitioners go through was practically emanating from my MDP t-shirt and ‘go-getter’ attitude. A few weeks later, this place meant something radically different to me, and so did the development profession. On June 20th, 2016 at 4:16pm, the picture you see was accidentally snapped in the throes of frantic texts being sent home. “I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing,” I texted my girlfriend. “I’m scared I could ruin what they already have.” This was in reference to a week-long intensive business development meeting I facilitated with Sesa Mu, a social enterprise which focuses on economic empowerment of small-holder farmers in Ghana. The sessions themselves were intensive to say the least. We re-branded their company, developed a business plan, and conceptualized new products and services, processes which usually take place over months or year, not days and hours. While expediency and efficiency are usually held on high within the business community, the potential fallout slowly eclipsed the rosy-idealism of academic development with something real, something potentially destructive. I may have just put the Sesa Mu leadership on the path to failure, not success, I thought to myself.

The people who understand me best know that I’m my own worst critic, so after a number of 30 degree heat/Star Beer/Banku induced carb-comas, I blocked out the anxiety and started to be critical about my feelings. I began like any business analyst/project manager would: I sketched a balance sheet on a piece of paper analyzing the business process and outcomes against meeting minutes and development research. In a skeptical fervour, part of me believed I would unearth a critical flaw in my approach through elaborate fractals and analysis tools. Instead, I kept checking the boxes, believing I had done everything right. They had built more organizational coherency and, rightly or wrongly, a more directed definition of what empowerment is for smallholder farmers in Berekuso. Then where was the issue? At a loss for answers, I gave up and promised to get back at it later. After playing some catch with Steve, the answer cam to me like any Newtonian-Apple-Tree moment does, over a strong cup of instant coffee. While I was feeling the way I did partly because of everything that Ghana has had to offer so far, including Sesa Mu, the farmers, and the culture, it had more to do with one intangible: leadership.


Coming from a project management background, my inbox is often inundated with lists that examine the current pulse of the profession, detailing the most en vogue leadership styles. In my spare time, I read these, try to absorb the key lessons, and apply the new rules against whatever I am currently working on. But the most important lesson for leadership is always left out of these lists, and that is Leadership isn’t learned in the classroom. It is garnered from experience and in failure, from comprehending how your personality fits with the people around you, and most importantly, from asking enough questions to understand what your team truly needs. At some point during our week-long intensive, I forgot this point. I realized that my anxiety boiled up during my moment of clarity because I wasn’t being the leader-cum-facilitator they needed, I started to become the subject matter expert they didn’t. For a brief moment, I forgot about everything I learned about the team in the first month, believing I was the wind in Sesa Mu’s sails that would eventually guide them to success, ignoring that Sesa Mu is their brainchild, not mine. I coveted the crossed off lists in my agenda and fell asleep satisfied. This fostered a sense of self-congratualation and ownership within in, falsely validating my knowledge and experience. The scary part is that I never intended on this happening, and if you were to ask me what sort of leader is needed as a development practitioner, I would generally be opposed to the notion that any one person is there to right the ship, so to speak.

Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts.  It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter.  It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.  It was time for me to do that.  It was time to be a commander.”
– Commander Chris Hadfield in his book An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth.
Being many days removed from my crisis, I now believe the issue stemmed from my over-ambition. In my haste to accomplish something, I stepped out of my leadership role and quickly became a counterproductive administrator, undermining Sesa Mu’s potential for growth. In the quotation above, Chris Hadfield nailed it in his operative phrase, saying that leaders focus on “laying the groundwork for others’ success.” For me and Sesa Mu, this lesson has come in the form of developing management practices. My fellow MDPers will tell you there are some facets of my life in which I am highly organized. When it comes to anything pertaining to business or entrepreneurship, I usually take it to the nth degree. In fact, I even developed a detailed project dashboard for my schoolwork last semester. When I first joined Sesa Mu, my immediate reaction was to centralize and organize everything, creating tracing sheets and a cloud-based document repository which could rival those used by large corporations. But creating these was never the actual challenge, it was doing what was needed to help this you team learn how to manage a company from the ground up. When I started my first business, this was something I struggled with as well, but I know that I wouldn’t have learned anything unless I adopted a learn-by-doing approach to my business education. My rush to organize things removed their opportunity to work through challenges and created frustration on my behalf when things weren’t to my specification. Essentially, I was teaching them how to fish and then keeping the rod for myself, only to be surprised when they were clumsy with the tool-in-hand. This began to crystallize and approach to leadership that was counterproductive, and it was definitely not laying the groundwork for success.
Although I still have over a month in Ghana, and many lessons to be learned, I don’t think the moral of this story is one of failure, it’s of the non-linearity of leadership and success, I believe that Sesa Mu and I have more synergy than ever before, and I have felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm emanating from the entire team. And from where I’m standing, I think they have a bright future with some very innovative products and services. This is shared by Patrick Awuah, the President of Ashesi University, who recently gave them a shout-out during a presentation with Google re-work. But I’m still learning how to pump the brakes and become the agent they need. In this sense I have finally resigned the role of teacher, letting in the school of Sesa Mu and Berekuso. While I am certainly not a veteran of the development profession, I believe this experience has taught me that development requires a different type of leader than I’m used to, one that knows how to abandon their academic and cultural baggage to be what is needed for that moment in time. For anyone who has been in a leadership role, be it through sports, business, or life, they will know there are moments that cause you to pause and question, spurring reinvention, excitement, and frustration simultaneously. This is what my time here has been above all else. Perhaps if we can all understand that the virtues of one type of leader can be vices of another, we can better understand how to mobilize each other to solve the world’s most difficult challenges.


Blog Tom

Tom Stark is a masters candidate in cohort 4 at the University of Waterloo. He has a background in history and philosophy as well as project management. Current research interests include local economic development, entrepreneurship, governance, and the nexus between development and security.


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