New York Training Schedule (first half)
Week 1: A Vision for Leadership in the Social Sector
Week 2: Building Self-Awareness (off-site)
Week 3: Why Charity Alone Is Not the Answer—The Role of Markets in Poverty Alleviation
Week 4: Self and the World—Good Society Reading (off-site)
Lessons in Leadership
I came into this program with my own ideas about “the skills required of a leader” or “approaches to leadership development” but many of those ideas were overturned during the first four weeks of training.
The first half of our training in New York focused on enhancing our personal traits. Instead of moving straight into specific methodologies, we were given broad frameworks and concepts to work with. How we subsequently used these skills and how far we took them were entirely up to us. I learned so much over the first four weeks that it is impossible to enumerate them all, but there are four major leadership-related topics that were especially eye-opening for me.
1. The Power of Being Vulnerable
For several days, the training program prompted me to think about the good and bad leaders I have met over the years, reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses, and consider the qualities that make an ideal leader. Sharing such thoughts with the other fellows—including personal weaknesses I preferred to keep to myself and painful (but important) experiences I wish I could forget—was rather discomfiting; I grew up believing that leaders always had to be strong, so this process made me step outside my comfort zone.
But from this I realized that it is all right for leaders to acknowledge their personal weaknesses and shortcomings. Once a person opens him- or herself up, others will also become more open, leading to the building of trust. I gained the courage to be vulnerable (both professionally and personally) and to open myself to those around me.
2. The Power of Listening
How good a listener are you, especially with people whose opinions, cultural backgrounds, or communication styles are different from your own? Working with other fellows in teams, I realized just how goal- and task-oriented I had been. In my past work, I would often fail to notice or even ignore the fact that a team member had fallen by the wayside and would simply plow on until the job was done. This meant that even if we did reach our goal, team unity was lost in the process. If this happens even among people with similar skills and backgrounds, it is not hard to imagine what would happen when dealing with businesses catering to the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP). This made me acutely aware of how important it is to listen closely to the views of the workers and BOP customers during our field assignment, even if that meant sacrificing speed and efficiency. When working in a social venture, we must be especially sensitive to the voices of those who do not have the courage to speak out or whose wishes are frequently not ignored.
3. The Power of Illustrating a Vision
We spent four days reading and discussing texts in a broad range of fields, including political philosophy, economics, anthropology, and literature, written over various periods, from ancient Greece to the modern day. Acumen Fund CEO Jacqueline Novogratz acted as moderator as we shared our viewpoints and experiences. I was highly impressed by the idealistic visions of a “good society” espoused by the great minds of the past and surprised to discover that they not infrequently contradicted one another. We debated the role of the state and the individual in such a “good society” and considered our personal visions of the ideal society. To be honest, I still only have a fragmentary image of such an ideal, but I believe these questions must continue to be asked. Even after being dispatched to our field assignments, I have met with other fellows once a month for further reading and to continue our discussions.
4. The Power of Expression
As a part of our exploration of a “good society,” we looked at the power of words to influence people, focusing on the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandella. I was overwhelmed by their ability to find common ground and elicit sympathetic responses even from their adversaries. I might have some luck in a one-on-one situation or in a small group, but I wondered how much impact I would have in front of a crowd of strangers, especially if they happened to be ideologically opposed to me. No matter how noble my sentiments and ideas, if I cannot get them across and move people, then I am not being effective as a leader.
The New York training program provided me with countless lessons that I had never received from the Japanese education system or from working in a Japanese business environment. On the surface, it may not appear all that different from other available programs, but Acumen took me to a much deeper and more personal level. The atmosphere was such that we felt quite comfortable opening up and exposing ourselves. From the outset of training, we heard over and over that leadership style varies from person to person and that the goal of the one-year program was to explore ideas and develop “individual leadership” (that is to say, the program wasn’t designed to benefit Acumen but to better the fellows themselves). There is no “correct” way of thinking about the program, and it is all right to have reservations, but it is important to be open to the process. This message that was drummed into us helped to create an environment in which all the fellows—including myself—were able to work on our own personal assignments with ease and confidence.
I think working together with the other fellows greatly increased the value of the training. The coordinator of the program told us that close attention was paid during the selection process to creating a well-balanced group of 10 fellows. The other fellows and I have undeniably gained a great deal from our instructors, but I think we may have learned even more from one another.