It’s 11.30am and my morning class has just ended. I have some free time to visit one of my favorite spots at the Baltimore location of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School: the balcony overlooking the harbor. Here I enjoy the view of the bay and its yachts moored less than 20 feet away; I find myself musing about a much talked about word: Leadership.
Leadership means different things to different people. Leadership to me has meant getting the job done, whatever it took, through means that reflected my values and included everyone I worked with. As a doctor, I have often had to “lead” in unclear situations. Lives have depended on my decisions. I learned that leadership can have different meanings in different situations, but like other qualities, each leader has a style that is unique to them. For example, I once had to make the rapid decision for my team to take a delivery with three simultaneous complications in a remote village in rural Nigeria. My team of one other doctor, one nurse, and three community health workers were doubtful because they would rather have referred the woman to avoid the risk of bearing the responsibility for the baby’s death. Luckily, the baby survived. In that case I had to be assertive, very assertive. In contrast, I have had to deal with local government leadership – politicians and very assertive high level civil servants. With them, I had to be more intuitive and diplomatic, soft but firm. Political will is important to successful program implementation but compromising values is not an option.
In both of the above cases I find that certain quotes come to my mind as I reflect quietly:
“A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.” ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
I believe everyone can be great, if they choose to harness their best qualities in the pursuit of their passion. My passion was born when I witnessed a young woman die during pregnancy in a health facility in Nigeria. She did everything right, came to the right place at the right time, but was failed by an overburdened health system. In pursuing this passion, I will likely improve the world I live in, even if just a tiny bit – and preferably a lot. In either case I will keep moving. This is exactly why the Carey tagline “business with humanity in mind” whispers itself in my mind as I survey the wealth and affluence that is the inner harbor. Business and wealth do not always have to mean profit. They can mean societal good, too. So, I believe that I am in the right place, and at the right time—the right place to be a leader.
I am lucky to have met a lot of great people in my life. I have met many of them at Johns Hopkins, in the hallways and classrooms of the Carey Business School. Being around people inspires me. I am already surrounded by great people with even greater legacies. I am inspired to be great as well, and when I am great, to make others great. I cannot be great if those around me suffer. Leadership is about being great at what you do because you love it, and paying the price to make sure that you achieve your objectives, even when the right decision hurts.
“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” ~ Benjamin Disraeli
I remember speaking to an old community leader in a Nigerian village. I was confused as to why the community would not use the free ambulance made available for emergencies. Eventually I understood that the community had problems with its designated community health worker. An ambulance was not their burning priority at the time. They had motorcycles and taxi drivers that could do that for them. Once I identified this, I was able to request for a new health worker to be posted there and the ambulance use by that community increased. Many times, we forget why we are called leaders. Leadership is really all about other people and how to work with them to achieve objectives. The higher you go and the more successful you are, the more responsibilities you will have, and the more people you will have to interact with. It is impossible to handle the pressure of being a good leader unless you can deal with the respect, motivation and conviviality that are often necessary for a successful team, group or organization. In fact, I have learned that many great leaders are great because they are able to balance who they are at home with who they are in public and remain true to their values in both cases. Professor Thomas Crain of the Carey Business School faculty, in his lectures on strategic communication, defines one of the Carey values – integrity, in this exact way: a consistency of values and behavior, in public and private.
“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” ~ Jack Welch
One part of knowing yourself is knowing your limitations, and how to grow and improve. Leadership is a journey in which no one attains perfection, but the journey itself is a building experience. I have made mistakes in my life and what’s important is learning from them. For example, I know I am a passionate person, and that passion could be positive or negative. Sometimes I am impatient about getting results when I know that they are within reach, but I have learned it is more important to be patient and ensure that my team is in sync and we move forward together, even if it seems slow at first. That was a hard lesson for me to learn, but the value of a team is in building each other.
“Leadership is often about doing things NOW.” ~ Gerald Ada
One of my great friends, Mr. Gerald Ada, has inspired me and shaped my views on leadership. He is a quiet man with loud actions. From the many conversations we have had, I have learned that there is no perfect time to act on things that matter to you. He has fostered the entrepreneurial aspirations of youths in Nigeria by providing them with financial support from his own pocket, even when he faced financial constraints himself. He recently started a school in Nigeria because of how much he believes in education, even though he has to take personal loans to do so. He taught me that if you believe in something, do it today, or else you may keep putting it off indefinitely. That thought keeps me going even when I lack the resources for the projects I desire. I do the little I can today.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” ~ Lao Tzu
Overall, I would say that I have continued to remind myself that true leadership is about making sure that WE achieve the goals and tasks, set in a way that ensures that everyone is a part of and positively impacted by the process. It is not about losing or winning individually or selectively. A good leader will always focus on making sure there is progress regardless of personal sentiment, disappointment, loss or gain. This is why the pride of a leader is in the success of his team, community or employees because leadership is about others, making sure the collective good is attained.
As my break comes to an end, I tear my eyes away from the beautiful Baltimore Inner Harbor and head back to my classroom for what I know will be another opportunity to learn and teach. I am in the right place: the Carey Business School.