My husband and I lead missions trips 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:
- 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 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 mal-nutritioned, 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 ill and near to 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 has 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 the most. 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 usually bring about 25 people to Haiti who have little to nothing in common with one another. We have nothing more than some basic supplies, a vision of exactly what we are going to accomplish and a rock solid plan of how we are going to achieve our goals. Despite the lack of commonality, we leave as a team bonded by experience and a line of sight to a vision for a better future for the Haitian people… not to mention the grateful feeling that the Haitian people give more to us than we could ever offer them. Everyone is involved in the right capacity – everyone has a role and knows exactly how important they are 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 had already 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 all these years later.
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 SheriLMackey@gmail.com. Check back soon for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.