Week 1 at Yali: The blind spots in my leadership

It’s day 6 today and we are still counting.

I am in Midrand, South Africa attending a Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) training under the 16th Cohort. I’ll be sharing bits and pieces about what Yali is and why I am here in the coming days but for now let me tell you a bit about where my mind is at right now because, Jeez…it’s been one fully packed week so far!

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Picture this; a room filled with slightly over a hundred and fifty young African leaders from all over Southern Africa, extremely ambitious men and women of diverse backgrounds and talents all gathered under the same roof. They are all risk takers and dreamers, go-getters and game changers. They say they’re all here to learn and network. I can almost believe them. I can almost believe myself. The general assumption is that this is a recipe for progress and hope for Africa but on the other side of the coin I see a recipe for disaster. It takes good and effective leadership to keep the coin from flipping on the wrong side.

There is a general misconception that learning is what happens when someone is standing in front of a room to talk or lead a discussion while others listen. For many years I have believed that if I listened ‘attentively’, and if I read and studied more, then I was learning. Someone should have punched me in the face a long time ago.

It was on day 2 at Yali that it finally dawned on me that I was not as learned as I thought myself to be. Let me dramatize this for you because that’s what I do.

Remember the picture I created for you a few seconds ago; a room packed with over 150 leaders. The facilitator says get into your groups. We all get into position carrying with us our attitudes, prejudices, egos, knowledge, ignorance, you mention it. We all want to shine. We all want to be heard. So who is going to be doing the listening. But let me focus on what’s going on inside my heart and head.

 

Are you serious? Did you even understand the question? Oh dear, not again. I can’t believe they just said that! Here we go again. Do they ever shut up? When are they going to finish talking so I can say something as well? That idea is wrong and mediocre, mine is better! Why is everyone here so limited in their thinking!? Can’t they think outside the box?? No, that’s not what I said. Why is it so hard for you to understand something so simple?

Here’s the thing, these people are almost exactly like me in many ways. We are all fighting to achieve something and make a difference in our communities. So if I am internally responding this way to them, then naturally, it should be expected that they feel the same way about me! Therefore, how do we learn from each other above all these noises and prejudices in our heads?

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I am still trying to figure that out.

It took a simple moment of reflection for me to realize how flawed in character I am as a leader. It all happened so fast I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was having lunch in the cafeteria when I received a text message from a friend. She was complaining about how I seemed to be posing for pictures with only females or males that ‘looked married.’ “Aren’t there any good looking or potential men there?” She lamented. I told her yes there are plenty and I immediately launched operation Find Handsome Men in the Room. LOL. It was when I was counting these ‘potential men’ that I came upon the truth.

A beautiful woman that’s differently-abled than most of us here at Yali. And I use the adjective differently-abled not to be politically correct but because I proved this to be a fact not so long ago. She was chatting with a group of friends and I noticed how she was struggling to articulate herself. My initial reaction was one of pity. I felt a sting of pain watching her struggle to express herself so much so I looked away and counted the seconds when she would stop talking and have some peace. I was about to resume Operation FHMITR  when I stopped and looked back at her.

Why does she insist on talking when it is clearly hard for her to freely express herself? I asked myself. I spent the rest of that afternoon stealing glances at her, my mind filled with all sorts of questions. As fate would have it, I was put in the same task group as her and it was only then that I started to actually learn.

For the first time in my life, I adjusted my attitude in my approach to how I listened and reacted. I shut off all types of thoughts going on in my head as I listened to her. Rather than focus on her disability and the struggles that came with it, I focused ALL of my attention on understanding what she was trying to communicate. More than just hear her speak, I listened to her. From there I learnt 2 things;

  1. Listening is a process. It starts before the person in front of me starts speaking or gesturing. It starts with my attitude and disposition before I hear or see anything.
  2. Just because someone cannot express themselves easily, fluently or even confidently does not mean they have no valuable input to contribute.

Without standing in front of a room or insisting on raising her hand to be heard above everyone else, this woman taught me 2 important lessons that have transformed how I choose to learn and network. And it’s only just been a week!

There is still a lot I am yet to learn and it all starts with my attitude. I thought feeling pity for someone that is differently-abled than me was the natural human thing to do. I thought it was a normal reaction and something I needed to feel. I was wrong. It kept me from knowing who she is as a human being and leader. Consequently, that kept me from learning anything from her. And boy did I have a lot to learn!

There are still many more days to go here at Yali. So far it’s been both good and bad. But mostly good of course. The bad part naturally, is having to accept with grace and confront my weaknesses as I keep learning. Funny thing though is, it is actually a good thing I am becoming aware of this! I guess when the facilitators told us that our emotional intelligence was going to be tested, they weren’t lying at all! Yoh. I have been tested and I have no doubt that this is only the beginning. I am still checking myself so wish me luck people!

Click here to learn more about Yali, the partners, and sponsors.

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And of course the post wouldn’t be complete without a picture of my cohort mates from Zambia! #CheersTeamZed

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