Leadership Is (Part One)

October 29. 2015 

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak to a group of freshmen 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 that best leadership lessons I have learned- the ones that really stick with me- are from personal experiences. So I chronicled the top four life lessons I have learned in my experience with CARE for AIDS over the past few years, made sure they all started with the same letter, and voila! I had a talk about leadership that would engage even the most cynical college freshman. Over the next few weeks I will unpack each leadership lesson- starting today with the first tenant of leadership I believe to be true: 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 (although that certainly helps), but you DO have to understand it, and incorporate it into your leadership.

My first trip to Kenya with CARE for AIDS was in December of 2013. On day one, during VBS, I was doing songs with the kids in a community called Githurai. 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 completely exuberant.

What I took for disinterest was actually a difference in cultural context. I took for granted that my musical context would translate across cultures. Similarly, in any leadership scenario, we have to always be cognizant that every individual, group, company, organization, etc. have their own specific context. If something isn’t working, whether its a program, a goal, a strategy- it might not be the thing itself, but the context in which the thing is being implemented. If you get to know what language, context, and motivations exist indigenously to the group you are leading, you could see results a lot faster and avoid wearing yourself out in the process.