The first, and most obvious, leadership challenge has been what high school English teachers would categorize as man-versus-himself. I suspect that this is no revelation to those who I have worked with before. I enjoy being a workhorse and have often led groups by defining the objective, distributing the tasks, and motivating the group members to execute. Sure, there are times when emotional bonding and group reflection are necessary, but by-and-large the leadership has been objective oriented; when execution has lacked, I have simply picked up the slack and given everyone credit. But frankly, this isn’t really leadership. At best it’s leadership in name but not in substance. True leadership requires defining an objective, communicating it effectively, and then creating an environment in which the team as a whole is able to reach its maximum potential. Of course there are times when the leader must dig down to move the entire group forward, but this is the exception, not the rule.
In the case of the Rwanda TEM lab team, I have been fortunate enough to have a team composed of 3 very capable, skilled, and hard-working members. None of them need me to carry their load, yet all of them define themselves in some sense through the intensity and quality of the work they do, something I too have often done in the past. In fact, there are times when I look at the team and see 3 Mike-like workhorses staring right back at me. “What a dream!” some would say, but for a person who enjoys the heavy lifting it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. How will I balance their needs versus mine? At what point do I sacrifice my desire for tangible work for the betterment of the team? When do I claim a task for myself to foment my own internal drive?
In order to initially satisfy their voracious appetites, I have left myself with little of the traditional heavy lifting opting for the often invisible work of leadership instead. In some ways I am learning a lesson in patience. Leadership doesn’t necessarily produce immediate results that are easily quantifiable: pages written, calculations completed, or hours in the can. Instead, its immediate product is an ephemeral sense that things are going in the right direction and that the group is achieving at its optimal level. There is no question that I am doing energy-draining work on a daily basis, evidenced by the fact that I fall hard asleep every night, but it’s not the concrete and tactile product by which I am used to gauging myself.
Further complicating the situation is leading in an ambiguous environment, one in which not only do I have incomplete information, but in which my ability to assess the risks of one strategy versus another is aided only through past experiences of tangential importance. If I were in Jordan, Brazil, or Spain, places where I have some past work experience, I would be better able to assess the plausibility of my decisions and access much better information. In Rwanda, however, I am relying on a sixth sense that is largely based on past experiences in high context tribal societies, which may or may not be applicable to Rwanda. Sure, these past experience are valuable, but I am keenly aware that their application has its limits. And all the while my team looks to me for direction through this foreign landscape, while, warranted or not, I feel the burden of their and the project’s relatively fast-paced Western temporal expectations ticking in the back of my head.
Lastly, there is the challenge of leading an American team through consensus and empowerment while maintaining my legitimacy in the eyes of a culture that expects leadership through strong hierarchical decision making. In the case of the team, I trust completely in the abilities of the group and believe that we will reach our full potential by leading through consensus and limited hierarchy. As a group, each individual member needs to be invested in the project and feel that they have created value. In order to attain this, I have purposely tried to create a constant dialogue among the group members and reach out for their input on most decisions. Sure, we could end up getting lost in the process, but so far this has not been a problem. Instead, we have been able to take advantage of the skills of each group member, maintain emotional cohesion, and solicit thoughts that have helped us avoid hasty decisions.
Yet, despite the apparent success of this strategy with the group, I sometimes wonder whether this approach delegitimizes my leadership in the eyes of the client. Rwandan leadership consists of a healthy dose of top down management. Our client, Jules, is a prime example. In his home, company, and church community, he is someone who demands respect from others and generally has a vision and pulls the others along with him. In other words, Jules leads as a general and is respected for it.
However, in stark contrast to Jules’ leadership expectations he often sees me leading through consensus and team-building – a style which he may be not accustomed to and I suspect he may regard as lacking leadership. The easy answer would be to lead as a general in his presence and lead through consensus behind closed doors, but this is highly unlikely considering the proximity of our living and working quarters to the client. As you may have noticed from the other blogs, we live, eat, work, and sleep in the same general vicinity as the client. In fact, this past weekend I was once again reminded of Jules’ perspective as he coached me on how to choose a table at a restaurant. After talking to a waitress about where to sit, he quickly interjected and explained to me that there was no need to ask for permission to sit down. Instead, I need to go where I please and only move if the restaurant staff insists.
If it gets to a point that I feel I need to breach the subject, I will more than likely ask Jules about how he manages and motivates his employees in Rwandan. This would not only give me insight into his personal thoughts on leadership but also a Rwandan cultural perspective. I might even steer that conversation towards a discussion of his impressions of the group, but at the current moment I think that this conversation is a little premature.