“A bold new way of tackling poverty that’s about dignity, not dependence and choice, not charity.” When I first read that on Acumen.org, I thought beyond poverty. I asked myself, “If dignity is about being worthy of honor and respect, what role does dignity play in leadership?”
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To find the answer, I went to three Acumen Global Fellows from the class of 2013 – three women in their 20’s who are the next generation of social impact leaders, a new kind of leader who sees the world as it is and knows she can be a part of the solution that creates lasting impact on the ground. A one-year fellowship, 10-12 individuals from all over the world spend two months in New York undergoing intensive leadership training, followed by nine months working with one of Acumen’s portfolio companies in India, Pakistan, East Africa or West Africa. It’s not about sitting around and talking about the problems, it’s about taking action. It’s about leading.
These three Fellows will share their stories with us over the next few weeks. They are from three different countries: United States, Japan and China. They had three distinct experiences. And they all had major learnings about leadership and dignity:
1) Recognize human dignity. Each one of these women started with a goal to recognize and support human dignity. None of them wanted to help people that they felt sorry for, but rather, be part of a solution that recognizes the dignity in all people. That’s empowerment.
2) Do what’s right, not what’s easy. All of them learned by doing, combining their hard skills with new lessons about how to build trust and support teams to have an impact on the ground. It wasn’t easy and sometimes they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but they kept moving forward with great integrity and intent.
3) Share the shining star. Each of them saw as their greatest lesson the need to collaborate with the people closest to the ground doing the unglamorous work of execution, day after day. It was not about being a shining star, proving what they could achieve, demonstrating their abilities. It always boiled down to their ability to listen to and learn from the teams they worked with and help them be shining stars.
4) Leadership is a muscle. Leadership is a muscle that needs to be trained and exercised in real life. The lessons they learned, how they overcame challenges, admitted to and fixed their mistakes – those learnings far outweighed the leadership lessons they learned from books.
This is Natalie Grillon’s dignity story. Natalie is 28 years old, from the US and has worked with the Peace Corps in Northern Mali as a Natural Resource Management Specialist. She also worked in environmental and sustainability planning for a Massachusetts town government and in sustainability strategy and marketing at SC Johnson. Natalie holds a B.S. in International Politics from Georgetown University, and an M.B.A. from Cornell University.
This is Natalie’s story about dignity, fixes and best mistakes:
What do you think is one of the most important things in the world that needs to be fixed?
Everyone should be able to live a dignified life with the opportunities of health and happiness.
What will it look like when it’s fixed?
There’s a base standard that everyone gets to be at irrespective of race, tribe, country, ability or disability — it’s not equality on everything but a standard of dignity and a chance that everyone should get. A base line of affordable and quality healthcare, clean water, safe and nutritious food, good education built upon mutual respect and knowledge, smart and flexible systems and the best ideas that skip over some of the mistakes of what the “developed” countries have learned so that we’re all emerging markets.
What are you doing to help fix it?
Currently I work as an operations manager for GADC, Gulu Agricultural Development Company in Gulu, Northern Uganda, as an Acumen Global Fellow. Gulu is now on the promising side of 20 years of civil war and GADC is a driver of the economic recovery. GADC trains and buys goods from smallholder farmers from across the northern region, then sells their organic and conventional produce on to international markets like the US and the EU. The boost in income they receive from the market and the premium price that organics pays, allows them to start to rebuild their lives, buying essential goods like iron sheets for a permanent house, clothes for their children and productive assets to invest in their small farm businesses.
What can others do to help fix it?
Ask more questions, listen and learn. I’m always trying to get better at listening to learn before I act so that my actions can lead to productive results based on consensus and conversations rather than assumptions. Don’t believe that you know the full story. The farmers for whom I work know their crop, know their land and know what they want. The more I listen to them the more I know the best path forward for them, our employees, the company.
What’s the best mistake you made?
The best mistake I made was also the greatest lesson during my time in Gulu: I think of it as my “gchat” mistake, not seizing every moment as a teaching moment. For someone working to build these types of businesses in any developing region, it’s most important to build capacity by helping colleagues in whatever way possible learn new skills that they can continue.
When I started out, it was easy to dive into the work and help out with a variety of different projects. With an operational role, I had a lot to learn, a lot of responsibility and a talented team to lead. As the busy season for the company arrived, the pressure was on to move as quickly as possible and loving my role, I became one of the team with my own responsibilities; it was easy to keep moving, driving towards our goals and feeling a sense of accomplishment.
However with time, it became clear that putting my head down and driving forward was not going to get it done. While we had achieved our goals, we weren’t actually making progress. There were growth opportunities for all of the team to work smarter, take on more responsibility and improve beyond the status quo. By doing my job to the best of my ability, I had actually made a big mistake: I could offer more in working alongside my colleagues to learn how to do new things together, like using a new database or thinking about ways to motivate teams. We started to go over quick tricks in organizing emails when we had a few moments and even teaching some basics I took for granted growing up in the US: Excel, Skype, Google docs or even G-chat. I could feel the sense of empowerment and excitement that could come from learning even a simple new thing and which only required a few minutes of our time. The increased empowerment to try out new techniques and methods and the feeling of accomplishment in turn led to staff feeling more comfortable with more responsibility and suggesting new ideas. We have recently introduced a new farmer registration database in Microsoft Access that the women on staff helped to design and now have successfully used to register 25,000 farmers this year, double from the year before and a big step up from the paper based files+ excel file we had been using. They’re experts now at the system, showing me how to pull farmer lists.
It’s easy to feel the pressure of day-to-day business and want to push items through on your own to get them done, meet deadlines and deliver. However, no final product is complete unless someone can keep doing that job after you leave. Obviously this is sometimes much easier said than done, but the most important achievements I felt from my time in Gulu are the strides my colleagues were able to make.
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