My last project before Christmas is to run a leadership programme with primary and secondary school teachers in Uganda. I arrive in Entebbe, located on the stunning shores of Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world.
My partners in Uganda is the Hope Restoration for Vulnerable People NGO, a wonderful group of people, who themselves are really struggling to put food on the table but yet are passionately committed to help the less fortunate, such as HIV-positive orphans and young girls stuck in prostitution.
Working with the teachers opened my eyes to another dimension of African life.
The teachers play a central role in shaping their communities, yet they are not being treated as such. On average, they make €50 / month, which is not enough to even send their own children to school.
It is not uncommon for the government to withhold pay for 3-4 months in an attempt to sort out its own finances, and it is needless to say that the schools are immensely under resourced and electricity, clean water, schoolbooks and other material are in short supply.
Many parents do not have even primary education and therefore don’t realise the value of an investment in a child’s education. As a result, many children drop out or they become violent and abusive in school.
As I stand in front of this group and listen to their life stories of failure, betrayal and loss of dignity and respect, I try my best to inject hope and confidence and help them to find ways of adding strings to their bow by setting up small side businesses.
Terrified, even though my face portrays confidence, I can’t help but feel more and more powerless inside. I feel their pain and admit to myself that in this environment, I too would give in to corruption or take any measures to improve my situation.
Sometimes life feels utterly hopeless.
Luckily I find faith to go on and manage to penetrate their layers of skepticism and the teachers leave equipped with the tools they need to take small steps towards a better life.
My final project for the year is completed and I am ready to go home.
When I so board the Airbus that will take me back to Sweden for Christmas holidays, I am overwhelmed by a cacophony of entangled emotions and tears come rolling down my cheeks. I label the feelings as gratefulness and happiness.
I feel so fortunate that I can just hop on an airplane and travel anywhere in the world. I am so blessed to have a wonderful family and friends that eagerly awaits my return. I am truly lucky to be in a position to touch other people’s lives in the way I have done over the past few months.
So, what did I learn in 2012?
Overwhelmed, I think of what my life looked like a year ago. After a stressful and busy year in the London office I would let my hair down with the girls in Las Vegas as a New Years’ treat. If someone would have told me that I would spend a large part of this year in the mud and heat of African grassroots, I would not have believed it.
A famous quote of Henry Ford springs to mind: “When you believe you can, or when you believe you can’t, you are probably right”.
How does this relate to successful leadership? I ponder. Leaders are people who all stand for something, who possess courage to be authentic. Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Aung San Suu Kyi to name a few influential leaders, all share the ability to believe.
Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, writes in his book Onward: “We sometimes go against reason for something we believe in. Despite the risks we refuse to be bystanders, even though we might not know exactly where it will lead”.
As I am reflecting on what this means in the context of my own experience and what I have learnt this year, I watch a wonderful TED-talk that completely resonates with me.
Janine Shepherd, the Australian Olympic athlete who had a car accident and became paralysed, expresses in this talk the total and excruciating feeling of loss and despair that immerses her when she realises that her body is completely broken. Not until she managed to let go of her former identity captured in her body, she was able to rebuild herself and become a professional pilot. She says: “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be. Flying is the ultimate feeling of true freedom.”
I could not agree more. I now know, that it was not until I let go of who I thought I was that I could create a completely new life.
When I wholeheartedly let go of the life I was supposed to live and was prepared to take risks, I suddenly found a source of tremendous creativity from within. The internal burning flame had always been there, but I had not had the courage to acknowledge it.
This year, I have come to understand the full meaning of human flourishing. It does not matter what you look like or where you are from or what you do for a living. What truly matters is that we continue to live our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are. To me that is what really defines freedom.
This is the most powerful lesson for me in 2012 – I learnt how to fly.