Leadership Lessons From Haiti

September 8, 2010 — 8 Comments

A few weeks ago my husband and I led a missions team to Haiti. As I was observing (and serving) in the poorest country in the western hemisphere,  I began to think about how there are some leadership lessons inherent in the environment in Haiti that most of us could stand to think about more often. You may think to yourself, “what can I learn from a country that has 90% unemployment and a 70% illiteracy rate?” These statistics are correct… and there are some important reminders (lessons) that impact how we interact with people as leaders and how far people are willing to go to serve you. Here are just a few of the things that come to mind:

  1. Understand, you can’t possibly understand…

Living and visiting third world countries on a regular basis throughout most of my life, I am more aware than most of cultural diversity and the impact it has within a single culture, much less a wider application. In Haiti, I was reminded that because I live within my own paradigms, I can never fully understand the plight of those outside of them. Despite seeing poverty in its most extreme, I have never been that poor….despite witnessing oppression at its worst, I have never really been oppressed…No matter how much, as global leaders we would like to think we understand, chances are we are just not equipped to comprehend the complexity and diversity that resides within our global organizations.  The myriad of cultural challenges our diverse global communities present, only serves to remind us that while we can certainly learn and understand general orientations and respect and value others worldviews, we can not fully understand individual people by observing from a physical or psychological level.  The diversity and complexity of those individuals is shaped not only by their culture, but by their life experiences and  the dozens of values, thousands of attitudes and tens of thousands of beliefs that continually evolve throughout a lifetime. As global leaders, where we can be effective is through active listening, understanding that there is more than one “best way”,  and having the capacity to facilitate the blending of the best of all cultural elements to make the whole more than the sum of the parts.

2.      One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to understand what’s important.

It’s very easy to be caught up in the minutia of day to day poverty in Haiti. However, as the leaders we were responsible for making the biggest impact possible in a finite period of time – not so different from global business. It was absolutely vital, while managing the interactions and activities of the team, to ensure the larger mission was being accomplished. Global leadership is no different – as leaders, we are responsible for the day to day operations and ensuring basic responsibilities are being met. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are also responsible for moving the organization forward in such a way that we are making a making a real difference to our employees, clients, and the organization as a whole.

3.     Embody teamwork and sacrifice.

A woman with a malnutritioned, dying child in her arms shares the small amount of formula we brought her child in order to save another. Heartbreaking, you say, but what does that have to do with global leadership? A lot, actually – What are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good? What do you value that you are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve an impossible future? What are you so passionate about that you would be willing to transform not only your company, but yourself? I can assure you that saving her child seemed nearly impossible, yet that woman was willing to share everything she had so that another mother might also realize the impossible future of seeing her child grow up. What would happen if we, as global leaders, would adopt an attitude of teamwork and sacrifice in everything we do?

4.    The importance of Execution.

In Haiti, execution can often be the difference between life and death. While serving at an orphanage, a woman walked up – she was holding a 3 year old girl by the hand and she was carrying what seemed to be a lifeless baby. The woman had brought her children to the orphanage to give them away – her husband had died and she could no longer feed them, they were malnutritioned to near death. She clearly loved her children. Her choice –  keep them and watch them die or execute on a plan to give them life.  She chose their lives. If you fail to execute, what is the cost? A failed project? Missed numbers? Maybe a few million dollars? Worst case – your position or someone else’s?  The truth is, we may never really know the impact if we fail to execute. The repercussions could ricochet far beyond our own line of sight. As a global leader, a key element of your role is to ensure execution – for everyone’s benefit.

5.   Value and leverage the resources you have (and stop complaining about those you don’t)…Be creative and use what you have.

In Haiti nothing is disposed of just because it fulfilled its original purpose. As in most 3rd world countries, once something has been used for its original purpose, it is time to ask what its next purpose should be. The third world teaches people how to be resourceful and leverage what they have. We should all learn from those nations who have the least because they value and leverage everything they have. Most importantly, people in Haiti value and leverage one another. They know how to find and use their resources –  who has specific skills and where to go to learn or get help. If one person acquires anything at all, it is shared amongst the community. The Haitian people never complain and have rock-solid faith – they use everything they have to the very best of their ability. In these (relative) times of economic hardship, can you imagine the impact we could have if we would adopt the Haitian sense of entrepreneurship – especially when considering our human resources?

6.    Unite to make the impossible possible.

We brought 25 people to Haiti who had little to nothing in common, with nothing more than a vision of exactly what were going to accomplish and a rock solid plan of how we were going to achieve our goals – we left as a team bonded by experience and a line of sight to that vision for a better future for the Haitian people. Everyone was involved in the right capacity – everyone had a role and knew exactly how important they were to the outcome. As a global leader it is your responsibility to unite your organization through a vision of a future worth striving for, to facilitate a game plan in which everyone knows and understands the value of their role, and ultimately to ensure execution – enabling a game-changing future for your organization and everyone in it.

Haiti is a place whose truths and shortcomings are different from those of your country or mine only in being more obvious – more difficult to look at. Anything that’s true of Haiti is true of global business, and the world, as a whole — that’s a truth that’s not complicated at all, only hard to swallow. Eight months after the earthquake that killed perhaps 300,000 people, life in Haiti seems to have evolved into a “new” normal. That doesn’t mean everything’s fine — it’s not. Even the new normal in Haiti is far from fine.

Most of us lead a privileged life, yet we often don’t appreciate how good (or how easy) life is for us. We may have a tough day at the office, spend innumerable hours on an airplane… one of our regions may not be delivering the results we would like, or perhaps we are having alignment issues within our global teams. Honestly, we should all  stop and appreciate that we are blessed enough to have these challenges. The people of Haiti struggle everyday just to feed their children. They have no hope of earning a living – the average wage for the 10% of the population that does have a paying job is less than $300 and has not increased in over 20 years – and they predominantly speak a language that is not spoken anywhere else in the world. Yet, somehow there are lessons to be learned…

I would love for you to engage the discussion and let us know how your unique experiences remind you of what good leadership is all about. Please feel free to contact me at  Sheri.Mackey@LuminosityGlobal.com or by visiting our website at www.LuminosityGlobal.com. Check back next week for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

8 responses to Leadership Lessons From Haiti

  1. Dear Sheri,

    Interesting insight and comments on the situation in Haiti and how it relates to leadership and perceptions in our part of the world.
    Please allow me to offer you a different angle:
    I was born in Algeria in the early fifties, in poverty and (from 1955) in war. Myself and my brothers and sisters are a living testament to our mother’s courage, resilience and creativity since she was widowed, aged only 35, with no education, no money and no material possessions to speak of.
    She went out and did all kinds of jobs. I and my brothers helped her as best as any boys aged from 6 to 10 could. We did everything, clean other people’s homes, pick up olives, mushrooms (even iron ore!!)…you name it. Death did not spare us either as my eldest brother (a brilliant schoolboy) died, aged only 12. Well to cut a story short, 50+ years on with a MBA and over 20 years of international management experience, I can tell you that I DO look at life and things, managerial or otherwise, very differently from your home grown managers. My own experience is that it is a real challenge to instill this kind of motivational perspective on people living in comfort, even my children!
    To finish, let me add another point and here I have to ask you to believe me that I am not trying to make a cheap political argument:
    Why does Haiti, in the backyard of the only superpower left, display such dismal social statistics? These are nothing new. Where is the positive and salutary leaderhip that should have been exerted by the US for decades? Haiti is a strong example of the long-held view that the US only cares about strategic, rich (or both) countries in its focus on ”bringing about positive change”

    Kind regards


    • Hi Nafa. Thank you so much for your perspective – it is so true and I see it with my own children! I would love to hear your story on what it took to climb out of poverty despite the challenging circumstances. Many people, in many countries today face the same plight and it would be wonderful to provide some instructional guidance on the resolve and persistence it took for you to succeed. People who grew up in difficult circumstance, or exposed to those who did grow in such circumstances, definitely see the world differently. I believe if those of who experienced hardship and overcame it, could share some of our perspectives and mentor those up and coming leaders, perhaps some of what we know could be transferred – not necessarily experientially, but definitely from a leadership growth perspective. It is very difficult to transfer this knowledge, but it could take leadership a long way if we could manage to transfer our learnings – even to a limited extent.

      I would tend to agree with you on the US weak policy surrounding Haiti (as well as other nations in need), but I would also submit that it is each of our personal responsibility as leaders to reach into these nations to the best of our ability to try and create sustainability and education that will ensure a better future, if not a better present…I challenge everyone out there to get involved and do something to help someone else. You may not change the nation over night, but you can make a difference to those you do have the ability to touch. If every leader did this, would it not be a better world in general?

  2. Sheri,
    I enjoyed reading your comments on Haiti. You seem to have approached the issue from an executive management point of view as a means of giving us some good examples of how to change our thinking process in regard to problem solving. That is fine as a didactical lesson process. But I am sure you do not believe that carrying out efforts such as you described, twenty-five people at a time, will affect a long term change in Haiti?
    I live in the Dominican Republic and I have also lived in the Turks & Caicos where there are sizeable populations of Haitians. They were largely abused in the Turks & Caicos and they are a constant source of conflict in the DR. This situation has been going on for hundreds of years. I will not recite it here. Anyone who needs a basic understanding of the conflictive history can easily find it in Wikipedia.
    The Haitian problem will not be solved by any amount of charity no matter how great. This is a geopolitical problem of continually expanding dimension. I am truly puzzled by the lack of focus and understanding on the part of the U.S. government, media and citizens to see the danger in this situation. Let me rephrase that. The U.S. government understands the situation, but lacks the intestinal fortitude to do anything about it. Haiti is falling further and further behind economically, educationally and socially. As you saw for yourself, it is a huge canker of human suffering that no words or reporting can ever describe adequately.
    Haiti is smack in the middle of the Caribbean. Geographically it shares the island of Hispaniola with the DR. Since the quake Haitians have been showing up in increasing numbers all over this side of the island. They are stressing the Dominican economic system by their use of the free medical system. They are upsetting the economy by taking jobs away from Dominicans at lower wages. They are bringing diseases back into the DR that have not been seen here in years. By and large the Dominican population is very tolerant of this situation. Dominicans are largely a loving Christian population. But things cannot go on like this forever. Both countries have about 10 million inhabitants, and growing more rapidly than many places in the Americas.
    The Dominican economic situation has been largely buoyed by large quantities of narco dollars running around the streets. At some point the U.S. will do here what it has done in Columbia and that flow will stop. It is my opinion that the DR economy will not remain stable without this inflow of narco dollars. This will eventually bring major social unrest and upheaval to the entire island of Hispaniola. With that comes the opportunity for destabilization of democracy, what little of it has been built here in the last 50 years. I believe we have all seen what economic destabilization has done in countries such as Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuela is a particularly sad case because it had a long history of free and open democratic elections, the longest and freest period of growing democracy in Latin America. The United States ignored the trouble signs there and we can all see the sad and troubling result.
    The U.S. can ill afford to have this pattern continue to spread in Latin America. In my opinion it represents a much more clear and present danger to the stability to the United States than actions in far off deserts on the other side of the world. This is our back yard; this is America, this is not Asia, nor Europe, nor Africa. As “leaders” of the free world I believe we have a much greater responsibility to the “American” hemisphere than anywhere else.
    It is my opinion that Haiti, as currently constituted, is not capable of self government and represents a threat to the entire American continent. We should act now to bring Haiti into its proper place in this hemisphere. The longer we wait, the higher the cost in human suffering and economic destabilization.
    Thank you for your comments and I look forward to hearing back from you.
    Ed Courey

    • Hi Ed. Thank you for your thoughtful reply to the Haiti post. This post was meant only as a brief example of what can be observed in unlikely forums (and does not even scratch the surface in reality), if one pays attention.

      You are correct – the efforts of 25 people visiting Haiti will not change the country today. But it will have an impact over time – one child, one person at a time. What I did not get into in this post is the fact that we are also sponsoring and supporting orphanages in Haiti on an ongoing basis. The food and shelter aspect of that support is important, as we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but just as important is the fact that we are also ensuring every one of the children we support has medical care and education. Not just basic education – they are all being taught English and computer skills in addition to the basics. We are hiring teachers, working with existing college students in Haiti to help us teach the kids English, buying computers, and supporting the build-out of another orphanage, a new school, a new church, and a medical facility – all to US standards – in the Mirabalais area of Haiti. As we raise more support, we will continue to do more. Many of us sponsor at least one child directly and ensure ALL of the resources are getting to the children ourselves through an in country partner called GCA.

      Not immediately, but eventually, this will provide the framework for the people of Haiti to have a means to communicate effectively with the outside world and promote a means to bring industry to Haiti. In the not too distant future, it will be possible for those industrious people in Haiti to pursue careers in call center management, or work remotely from Haiti with global companies, etc. Because the college was destroyed in the earthquake, we already have college students engaging in remote education in English so they may continue their education and make a difference in their country. It is not the ideal answer, but it has to start somewhere. If we do not focus on the sustainability of Haiti, there truly is no hope. I hope you can now better understand that this post may have appeared on the surface as a didactical lesson, but there is much more going on under the surface to ensure the sustainability of the Haitian people – one person, one child at a time.

      I definitely hear you re: the geopolitical situation in Haiti – all I can say to that is that we operate in spite of the corrupt governmental practices, not in tandem with…I, too, am disappointed at the lack of commitment from the US government and media to help the people of Haiti in developing long term solutions to their challenges. You are correct in all you say, but we have to focus on what we CAN do – we can provide a mechanism to enable Haitians to communicate and work with the outside world (sustainability), we can provide for the basic needs of widows and orphans so they can begin to look past survival toward a viable future, and we can raise awareness and provide a safe mechanism for people to contribute to the development and sustainability of Haiti.

      If each of the 25 people on the last trip return to their home country and communicate what others can do to make a difference in Haiti, and some of those contribute or join on the next trip, etc. – a difference can be made. The last trip, we came back from Haiti and engendered ongoing monthly support for 52 orphans, the construction of a bath house and toilet facilities at an orphanage, the purchase of 25 beds, and the refurbishment of another orphanage… a difference is certainly being made in those orphans lives. Another great example of progress in Haiti is an American physician, Paul Farmer, who is building a 300 bed teaching hospital to train Haitian doctors and keep them in country – these types of projects do make a difference, despite the political challenges. Those who get involved and take measurable action are creating the possibility of a future in Haiti – a sustainable future, where Haitian leaders can make a difference. It is no short road, with no easy answers, but we can make a difference in the long term…

      I have been to both the DR and (obviously) Haiti. Interestingly, the current scenario reflects what I recently saw while working in South Africa. Much the same as the DR, SA is being over run with refugees from Zimbabwe trying to escape the poverty and corrupt government there. The same pressure is weighing on jobs and medical systems…the challenges presented to the neighboring countries to oppressed countries are enormous and I do not know that there is a “right” answer. What I do know is that it is all of our responsibility to do what we can for whom we can.


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