By Assegid Habtewold
The theme of my speech at a community empowerment event organized by Jantilla on Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 in Silver Spring, MD at Double Tree by Hilton hotel was “Leadership in the 21st C”. One of the many outstanding questions that were asked during the Q&A session was “What are some of the barriers that are preventing many Ethiopians from becoming leaders?”
Before answering this question heads on, I had disclaimed by admitting that we cannot ever know why each individual Ethiopian hesitates from taking lead to pursue their passion. The barriers to leadership are subjective and vary from person to person, culture to culture, generation to generation even though there are some common obstacles that deter the vast majority from stepping up to the plate and playing their fair share in tackling the challenges their respective community faces. I pointed out that one of the culprits why most people, not just Ethiopians, refrain from considering themselves as leaders to advance the cause they care about is the way leadership is defined. I confessed that this very reason led me to write and title my first book “Redefining Leadership.” The book was published in 2011 and is available on Amazon.
In this article, rather than recounting my full answer from this past Saturday, I thought sharing with you the Introduction part of the book. This is my hope that the excerpt below will paint a clear picture of why some misunderstandings have been keeping millions, if not billions, at bay from claiming their birthright of leadership.
“Leadership has a different meaning for different people. People from different cultural, historical, political, and religious backgrounds view it differently. Some people view leadership as a privilege set aside for those who have certain attributes and qualities. The existing definitions of leadership play a great role for this perception. Read a couple of dictionaries and books on leadership and you will be surprised to find out that leadership is defined in relation to certain aptitudes, and as if it is about leading others and organizations. For instance, most definitions have this pattern: ‘Leadership is the ability/skill/capacity to lead/guide/inspire/influence …others…’ As you can easily imagine, many individuals from various cultures may read these kinds of assertive phrases and think that they don’t qualify to lead because they don’t have these and other similar competencies mentioned in these definitions.
These definitions also don’t click for everyone, especially for those who are not interested in their leadership to center around doing something to, for or against others. These definitions aren’t wrong or irrelevant. Nevertheless, they define the term leadership using the most important tasks of leading without answering or offering some hints on why someone should lead in the first place. For many people, there must be a bigger reason than leading, guiding, inspiring, and influencing others before they take this kind of huge step.
Besides, these assertive words fend off many people from cultures such as mine and many in the East and South. In these cultures, making oneself vulnerable and submitting to others is more important than influencing or inspiring others. However, leadership isn’t all about leading others or submitting under another’s influence. Its definitions should embrace the very reason why someone should lead without sounding from the West or South or East cultures. Leadership was there before our cultures existed. It is an ancient ideal longer than the history of our cultures and will continue to exist as far as human civilization continues in this universe and beyond.
Leadership is also wrongly perceived as a career set aside for those who have certain attributes like oratory, charisma, courage, and confidence. Its scope as well is narrowed and considered as one of the social science fields. Not only that, leadership is related with formal authority, hierarchical positions, official titles, and governing power. These lead many people to assume that they should first meet certain requirements, show some proofs, and get acceptance or recognition from others before they lead. In worst cases, leadership has been portrayed in a negative light and perceived as a tool used by the few to dictate, exploit, manipulate, and abuse others. Because of these bad reputations, some leaders have shown, many may vote themselves out from ever leading…
Thus, leadership should be redefined, put into context, and reintroduced to reflect its true meaning and secure its rightful place among all humankind. It is our birthright as we are born to this physical world and the key to our fulfillment beyond time and space. Our being born to this world uniquely entitles us to lead this uniqueness. Yes, as we know who we are and why we are here and pursue it, we may maximize our potential, become resourceful, inspire and influence others, even may leave legacy beyond our generation. But leadership shouldn’t stop there. We should fulfill our mission in life; this is the accountability part. That is why I am saying that the existing leadership definitions overlooked these key truths and ingredients that would have changed the face of the world and inspired everyone to lead according to its passion, originality, and towards individual and collective success and fulfillment. No one should have been excluded, exempted, or left behind from leading.
In ‘Redefining Leadership’; leadership is simply defined as knowing oneself, the reason for existence, and pursuing it until fulfilled. In other words, leadership is primarily about oneself, not others nor founding and leading organizations. A true leader is a person who has discovered himself and his assignment in life and pursuing it until fulfilled. While in the process he may influence others and lead organizations towards achieving his own destiny, and contribute his share towards the collective destiny of his family, community, organization, national, and global levels…”
I would like to conclude this article by emphasizing the fact that countries like Ethiopia cannot attain sustainable economic development with a few leaders alone what so ever outstanding and great these leaders maybe in their leadership abilities. The magnitude and depth of the challenges we face requires raising as many grassroots level leaders as possible in every sector. Of course, I’m not promoting mass production of leaders for the sake of just having multitudes of leaders everywhere. Quality is very vital too. We need leaders who have the necessary competencies to lead with passion, clarity, capability, and character.
The responsibility to build the nation’s leadership capacity, nonetheless, shouldn’t be left to the federal and regional governments alone. Other stakeholders should also consider playing proactive roles in this regard. Each individual should also make some efforts to build their own leadership capacity. Remember, leadership starts with self. Self-leadership is the foundation of impactful leadership.
Wherever you may be right now, begin taking leadership initiatives in the area of your passion. Find a cause that matter to you and do something about it. Start small scale. If necessary, join the already existing organizations or start one. You may fail here and there. That shouldn’t discourage you. Learn as you lead. Don’t forget, ‘Leaders are learners’.
This is high time to claim your birthright of leadership to pursue the reason of your existence so that you may have a chance to fulfill your destiny and leave an enduring legacy at the end of your journey on this planet. This is an exciting time in Ethiopia. Tap into this golden opportunity, be proactive, and play your part to transform Ethiopia in one generation. Don’t sit on the sidelines and watch what is happening from afar like other onlookers. Roll up your sleeves and be part of the solution to change the destiny of your community and country once for all!