Photo by Bobby Neptune for CARE for AIDS

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak to a group of first-year students at Georgia Tech about leadership. I wanted the talk to resonate with them, but as I prepared and looked over my bookshelf and conference notes to pick out my favorite principles and attributes of leadership, nothing felt right.

It turns out the best leadership lessons I have learned— the ones that stick with me are from personal experiences. So I chronicled the top life lessons I have learned in my experience with CARE for AIDS over the years, made sure they started with the same letter, and voila! I had a talk about leadership that would engage even the most cynical college freshman.

Today I want to talk through two of these lessons from Kenya.

I have found the first crucial tenant of leadership to be this: good leadership is indigenous.

I don’t necessarily mean this in a literal sense— you don’t have to be native to the culture, company, or people group that you are leading, but you do have to understand it and incorporate it into your leadership style.

My first trip to Kenya with CARE for AIDS was in December of 2013. On day one, I was working with a huge group of kids in a community called Githurai (a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya) — my job that day was to help entertain them so their parents could have a meeting at the church and then a few hours of break from their daily routine. I had a room full of kids, and I was trying to get them to engage and sing…and I was striking out. I remember singing “waves of mercy, waves of grace” and doing extremely exaggerated hand motions while the kids just stood watching, barely moving. Some of the kids were trying to follow what I was doing, but they were mumbling the words and missing the mark completely on the hand motions. At first, I thought they might just be disengaged, but when I had finally exhausted myself, I called one of the kids up to lead a song of her choice. As soon as she started singing the rest of the kids joined in and were wonderfully exuberant.

What I took for disinterest was a massive difference in cultural context. This is an obvious truth, but we often neglect to apply this concept to our workplace. In any leadership scenario, we have to always be cognizant that every individual, group, company, organization, etc. has their own specific context. If something isn’t working, whether it’s a program, a goal, a strategy— it might not be the thing itself, but the context in which the thing is being implemented. Leading a group of employees without understanding their context is like singing songs in English to a group of kids who only speak Swahili.

If you get to know what language, context, and motivations exist indigenously to the group you are leading, you will see results a lot faster and avoid wearing yourself out in the process.

The second crucial tenant of leadership is that it’s inclusive.
Again, this lesson was made evident to me in the field when I was working with a group of children in a community called Ngando in Nairobi.

At one point in the afternoon, I had the children split into two large groups to play games. As we prepared to teach the kiddos how to play Duck Duck Goose, I instructed my group to circle up and hold hands in the center of a field right inside the compound gates. One little girl, EstHer, was particularly excited, and grabbed onto my hand, jumping up and down and giggling while we waited to start the game.

As I looked around, taking an inventory of the kids, I noticed a girl standing at the gates of the compound, shyly looking on at the fun being had. Esther caught my gaze and looked over to the girl at the gates. She looked up at me, looked at her hand holding mine, and then ran to the girl at the gates. Before I could even call to her, she had grabbed the little girl’s hand and was running back into the field of the compound. Esther ushered the shy girl to my left side and placed the girl’s hand in mine, then resumed her place to my right, grabbed my hand again and looked up at me. She was beaming. Esther was excited before, but including her friend in the fun increased her joy to enthusiasm.

This simple example holds a profound truth; progress and success don’t diminish when you give them away, they increase. You stand to lose nothing and gain everything when you invite others in. As the saying goes—if you have more than enough, build a longer table, not a taller fence.

In a practical sense, when you can invite others to speak into your projects and decision-making process at work, your joy and engagement as a leader will increase, and those who have been invited into the process will have incredibly high rates of buy-in.

While these are only two of the countless lessons I have learned from my time in the field with CARE for AIDS, they have informed the way I work with and for my team. These experiences have also shaped the way I look at the world— I now try to glean lessons and insight from every situation, no matter how mundane. If I can lean how to lead in the workplace from a game of Duck Duck Goose in Nairobi, what other valuable lessons are hiding in plain sight?

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