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The theme of my speech at a community empowerment event organized by Jantilla on Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 in Silver Spring, MD at DoubleTree by Hilton hotel was “Leadership in the 21st C”. Last week, I wrote a follow-up article concerning one of the reasons why we Ethiopians don’t have as many leaders as we need. If you have missed the article, check it out from this link: “What is the primary reason that prevents many Ethiopians from becoming leaders?”
In that article, I shared how the way leadership is defined discourages many from taking lead in the area of their passion. In this sequel article, let me share with you another reason that prevents many Ethiopians from becoming leaders, from playing their fair share in transforming our country. In my book I quoted in the previous article- “Redefining Leadership”, which was published in 2011, I pointed out four major barriers that keep many at bay from claiming their birthright of leadership. One of the four reasons is culture. During the Q&A session, we explained how our culture doesn’t incentivize outward looking individuals and how this, in turn, discourages many from going out to take leadership initiatives to advance the cause they care about. Rather than recounting what I said at the Jantilla event concerning the impacts of culture, I thought to share with you an excerpt from the above-mentioned book to show you how many people are victims of their own culture:
“Culture is simply the collection of beliefs and values a given society or organization reflects collectively. These shared viewpoints, principles, rules, and behaviors bind stakeholders together as they live, work, and fellowship together. Culture is an environment that nurtures and shapes the various personalities of those who dwell in it. As a person with a medical background, let me give you a metaphor using culturing microorganisms in a laboratory to explain how a nurturing culture is. First of all, each microorganism requires a certain dose of feeding substances and composition of some chemical compounds. Using media such as plates, cultures are built in the lab to harvest some useful microorganisms. The final nature of a given organism is dependent upon the content of the culture it was fed.
Likewise, we are the products of those cultures (s) that fed and nurtured us. For that matter, the progress and competitiveness of organizations and nations depend upon their cultural elements. For example, Harrison & Huntington compared the economic data of Ghana and South Korea in the 1960s and found out that these two countries were having similar GNP and almost on an equal footing. However, after some decades later, South Korea became an industrial country with lots of economic success. The authors attributed this contrasting difference to South Koreans cultural values, which embraced ideals such as working hard, educating their citizens, investing, and promoting discipline, and the likes.
Whether it was the hunting-culture or today’s cyber-culture, culture shapes the personality of the individual as what he eats and drinks shapes his physical appearances. Culture plays a significant role in cultivating the individual who would have gone nowhere without the collective knowledge, identity, and guidance he has got as he grows from nobody to somebody. Throughout the years, we are fed and cultivated to become who we are today. Our thinking patterns, decision-making processes, and the way we behave and act deal with time, relate with others, interact with nature, view the future, perceive the invisible world, etc. are highly influenced by our respective cultures.
Though at times we may have counter-cultural stands and refuse to get molded all the time, the sum total of who we are at present is the product of those cultures we have been exposed. We should be grateful for the opportunity we were given to find ourselves embraced within those environments that finally helped us on our way up. We started naked, alone, and empty, and look at where we are now. We read the books, observed the arts crafted, used the system built in a given culture, and so on. Therefore, we owe our cultures. Yet, culture plays some negative roles against individual uniqueness and leadership.
If you don’t wrongly mistake me, almost every culture has some elements that discourage individual uniqueness. Some cultures, especially those individualistic, produce many unique individuals while others discourage individual uniqueness altogether. I call the latter communal cultures that are common in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America. In these cultures, individuals are ‘forced’ to group thinking. Very few break through and become leaders of their unique destiny while the majority is led into lifetime obscurity in the name of showing loyalty for group identity and destiny.
Though communal cultures discourage individual uniqueness and leadership the most, almost all other cultures within the individualistic culture have some cultural elements that undermine individual uniqueness and leadership. There are cultural myths, taboos, and sayings that discourage people from taking leadership. Let’s look at some sayings from representative cultures.
In my country, there is a saying: “Silence is gold”. There is a similar saying in Spain: “A closed mouth catches no flies”. Without talking, there is no way one becomes unique and takes leadership initiative to share with others his message and vision. These kinds of mottos are disincentives for individuals to go out and pursue their uniqueness through leadership. There are similar myths in western cultures too such as “Don’t blow your own horn”. In the Far East, “The nail that sticks up will get pounded down”. In the Middle East, “Woe to leadership, for it buries those who possess it”.
Surrounded by the noises such as the above and many similar discouraging myths, since childhood, it is very hard for many to venture and go out to pursue their uniqueness by leading their own destiny towards fulfillment. As leading is considered making noise, self-promoting, troublemaking, we can imagine how many individuals find no incentive to claim their uniqueness, communicate that to their respective peers and communities, and stride forward to bear the fruits of leadership.
What is tricky about culture is that many of us may not even know that the way we think, the pattern of our behavior, the way we decide, and act is the result of our cultural orientation. We may not question those things that don’t promote individual uniqueness and allow us to claim our birthright of leadership and lead a distinct path towards fulfillment. These things operate at a deeper level without much awareness and control from our conscious side of the brain. That makes it a very dangerous barrier against leading an original life and pursuing a distinct path.
The frustrating thing is that the majority in a given culture defends the above discussed and similar counterproductive myths, taboos, and sayings without questioning and knowing why they were installed in the first place. This reminded me of the most popular psychological experiment of Harry Harlow’s. This experiment involved a couple of monkeys, a banana, a stair, and cold ice water spray. The banana was hung on the ceiling and the stair put under it. When one of these monkeys stepped on the stair to reach the banana, all of the monkeys were sprayed with cold ice water. After a couple of trials with the same brutal cold ice water sprays on all the monkeys, the monkeys developed group-thinking and stopped trying. Not only that, they attacked newcomers who tried to step on the stair even when there was no more cold water spray. This continued even if all the monkeys who witnessed the cold-water spray firsthand were substituted with new ones.
The insight from this experiment was that even if the initial monkeys substituted with new ones, which hadn’t been there when cold ice water was sprayed, continued to attack newcomers who tried to get the banana. What these monkeys knew was that they were beaten the first time they tried even if they didn’t know why. They also watched while other newcomers were beaten. Soon after, they joined the group-thinking and started to defend the banana from newcomers even if they didn’t have any clue why this beating started in the first place. The same with culture; people zealously defend unproductive cultural myths without knowing why they were installed in the first place. I have been beaten and watched others beaten because of similar group-thinking without fully understanding why these group-thinking were put in the first place. What I am saying here in this section is that ‘there is no more cold ice water spray in place that we should stop beating one another but rather let’s enjoy the banana’…”
Knowing how many people are blindly loyal to their respective culture, I don’t expect a lot of people to immediately break through cultural barriers to taking leadership initiatives just because they read this article. This is my hope, however, that this article sparked curiosity in you if in case you’re one of the victims of your own culture; if in case, your culture discouraged you from venturing out to take lead in the area of your passion.
Don’t misunderstand me. Yes, communal cultures like ours have so many great cultural attributes we need to keep and promote. However, our culture needs to be reformed if our desire is to come out of poverty and enjoy sustainable development, which cannot happen without raising enough leaders at all levels. Please understand that I’m not suggesting copying and pasting a foreign culture from somewhere. That doesn’t work. I’m talking about indigenous reform- reforming the existing culture by keeping what has been productive and substituting those cultural attributes that have been counterproductive without losing our Ethiopiawinet.
Countries like Ethiopia must pass through a deep change to enjoy prosperity, stability, peace, and harmony. Unfortunately, deep change is impossible without cultural reform. The culture we have had brought us this far. If we would like to go somewhere better than where we have been so far, we don’t have any other choice but to reform our culture so that it empowers us to have the right mindset, attitude, discipline, principles, and standards, which in turn enable us to transform Ethiopia once and for all and in one generation.
Remember the metaphor I shared above. A given organism is a product of the culture that fed it. Using one and the same bacteria but two different cultures, you can harvest two totally different bacteria colonies: A very deadly bacteria that can be used as a deadly biological weapon, and another benign bacteria that can be used for vaccination. The difference between the two is the culture that nurtured them.
Culture- whether individual, corporate, or societal, matters. It’s one of the most important competitive advantages. You cannot experience true and lasting transformation without reforming your culture. Period. Deep change that doesn’t entail reforming the existing culture doesn’t lead to somewhere better.
Let’s reform the culture that predisposed us to the troubles that inflicted us for decades, if not for centuries. Let’s create a culture that nurtures our people and enable us to defeat poverty, despise corruption, incentivize cleanliness, promote hard work, embrace discipline, and encourages excellence and quality. Let’s have a culture that allows our people to identify their uniqueness and venture out to take lead to serve their respective community with leadership excellence in the area of their passion. Ethiopia cannot compete regionally, continentally, and globally successfully without tapping into the full potential of her people. Sadly, no one can release his/her potential without knowing who they truly are, their unique lane and passion, and without developing some key leadership attributes. What is more? Ethiopia cannot unleash her greatness without unleashing the greatness within each citizen. Let’s create a culture that adequately produces great citizens that can transform Ethiopia into her greatness and enable her to play her unique leadership roles regionally, continentally, and beyond.
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!
Leading in the 21st C with a mindset and competencies of the 20th C leads to the alley of irrelevance, if not now, at the end of the day.
Whether you’re a seasoned or novice leader, you should understand that the new century demands new kind of leadership, and proactively developing your leadership to remain relevant in the new era.
If you’re already a leader, regardless of your title and the place you hold, this is time to audit and see if you are up to the task and challenge to lead in the 21st C.
If you haven’t yet made your mind, if you’re not yet in any leadership position, if you have been thinking that you’re not a leader at all, you should know that you live in this exciting time. The time you are in invites you to step up to the plate and play your fair roles as a citizen of the information era.
The severity of the challenges your community and organization in particular, and the human race at large face in this new century, and the vastly available opportunities the new era presents call upon you to take the mantle of leadership.
This is your time! This is the right season to make your mind, work on your mindset, and begin developing your competencies and character to remain relevant in the 21st C. And, my speech on this coming Saturday, February 2nd answers the following questions:
• Why 21st leadership is different than the previous century?
• What are the challenges & opportunities for leaders in the 21st C?
• What qualities are required to lead in the new era successfully?
• What do these all mean to you personally?
• What are some of the practical steps you could take right away to elevate your leadership to remain relevant in the new century?
• And more.
Go to the website of Jantilla to register and reserve your seat.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at