What do we mean by Leadership? Learning from Four Thought Leaders

I am fascinated by thought leaders because they influence our thinking in a positive way, and enable us to see important issues from a different perspective, especially when confronted with challenges and dilemmas. A thought leader is an individual that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is often rewarded. (Source: Wikipedia). In this space, we will learn from four inspiring individuals who in a humble, yet powerful way, are contributing their ideas and actions in the field of leadership development.

Here, we introduce, in alphabetical order:

. Ahadu Gebreamlak, a fellow colleague in leadership development facilitation and training, and active entrepreneur. Ahadu has always motivated me to continue searching for innovative ideas, and give back the community.

.  Konjit Tilahun Yimer, a Counselor/ Psychotherapist, philanthropist and fellow mother. Konjit ignites my desire to improve my parenting skills, and be of service to growing the sense of community in our schools.

. Peter Loadman, a fellow coach colleague, has instilled in me the ethos of applying critical thinking in my work, and cultivating positive relationships, and

. Sheetal Shah, a partner in transformative change work and self-healing, who sparks in me the value of being present in relationships, and the preciousness of self-care.

Such leaders were asked questions on their work, what ‘leadership’ means to them, how they develop, and what they recommend for our emerging female leaders in Ethiopia/ Africa. Here are their answers in their own words.

  1. Please share something about yourself, the work you do, and some of the initiatives you are leading. 

\"\" Ahadu Gebreamlak

Ahadu: my name is Ahadu Gebreamlak, and I am Managing Director at the Center for African Leadership Development (CALD) and General Manager for A Plus Industrials

Beyond the daily management operations and consulting activities, at CALD, I am leading efforts on devising strategies for making training and learning projects more effective and impactful. In addition, we have designed a teen-leadership project, a youth leadership development project to reach out 1 million youth leaders in 3 years, and a 100 leadership related books reading challenge for high school students  – (13 to 17 years) under the motto: leaders are readers, readers are leaders.

\"\" Konjit Tilahun Yimer

Konjit: My name is Konjit Tilahun Yimer, also known as Koni to my coworkers, and Mimi to my family.  I am wife and a Mum of four beautiful children: two girls and two boys.

I’m a Counselor/ Psychotherapist by profession, and an entrepreneur deeply driven by passion for philanthropy.

Currently I’m the Founding Director of Brave Hearts Ethiopia (BHE), a local charity with a mission to empower vulnerable children, youth, and women. I am also the founding chairperson of Brave Hearts Ethiopia Australia, an Australian charity with a mission to raise awareness and support of BHE’s mission and vision.

In addition, I’m the Director of Aussie Foam PLC which is a manufacturing company that I co-established and manage with my husband.

Finally, I also work as a Counselor/ Psychotherapist in collaboration with other mental health professionals.

\"\" Peter Loadman

Peter: My name is Peter Loadman and I\’m a professional coach and management consultant.

For more than 25 years, I have worked at senior levels with organizations of all sizes connected to the global financial investment world as an operations specialist and a strategic/ change consultant. Having qualified as a personal and corporate coach almost 10 years ago, my focus has changed and all my energies go into enabling people and organizations to reach their goals and potential. During the past years I have been coming in Ethiopia to do exactly that. During that time I have run many self-development workshops, coached numerous local people, joint facilitated weekend retreats and run business consultancy projects for Addis based organizations. I also promote a business toolkit for the University of Sheffield which has the objective of \’balancing profit and people\’ through supply management and a real focus on employee engagement.

Running my own business, LYFT – Live Your Future Today, I\’m constantly leading initiatives for the business itself or my clients. Currently, in Addis there are 2 projects that have kept me busy, a strategic planning review and, secondly a financial and governance analysis for a large meat processing organization.

Like any project I have completed over the years, regardless of business size, I believe the success depends on whether leaders and people are willing to acknowledge that changes need to be made in the first place and then there is strong leadership backed up by a communication plan to ensure the change sticks. Sadly, too many times, I have seen that people wholeheartedly agree with the changes but do not do the hard stuff, i.e. changing themselves, and so the problems and issues continue.

\"\" Sheetal Shah

Sheetal: My name is Sheetal Shah. I work as a leadership coach and facilitator.  I like to call myself a transformational catalyst as I see the role of a coach and facilitator as that of a catalyst that sparks off the process of self-reflection, awareness and transformation.  I also like to call myself an immersion experience expert as I love to design immersive learning experiences for leaders.

I am the lead facilitator of a programme called Deep and Wide, which is a mentor coaching programme for coaches to support them to be more integral and transformative in their coaching practice.  I am also volunteering on the Resource Design Team as a leader for designing learning resources for 400+ NGO leaders in Ethiopia.  In addition, I am the first certified teacher for a programme called Search Inside Yourself, which helps leaders to explore leadership from an emotional intelligence and compassionate leadership perspective

  1. What does ‘leadership’ mean to you?

Ahadu: Leadership for me is an art and science of birthing meaningful and significant dreams, and realizing the same, including making impossible ones (dreams) possible…all in the service of humanity, whether in very minute or big scales.

Konjit: Leadership to me is about influencing people. Influence is not about power. It’s about being aware of what motivates your team. A good leader is one who inspires, influences, empowers, encourages creativity, fosters learning, motivates open communication and above all demonstrates strong ethics and who gains the trust of others who follow her lead.

Peter: First of all let me say, I do not believe that you have to have a position of authority or a status title to be a leader. Everyone within an organisation can consider themselves a leader. A waitress dealing with an accident in the restaurant and ensuring the mess gets cleaned up with as little disruption as possible to the customers; a team member ensuring that communications are passed on when people have been absent, a person paying for themselves to get new qualifications, or a team member volunteering writing a blog to promote the organisation, these are all acts of leadership.

A leadership mindset is based leading others, leading yourself and leading an organisation. It is based on strategic thinking, results and getting the best out of people in terms of performance. It is a balance of all of these things – self leadership, thought leadership, results leadership and performance leadership. Sadly, we see that all too often people focus just on one thing – results quite often, making profits and making and making money. When this is the focus, we see the worse in people and their leadership style just becomes who can shout loudest and bully people into action.

I have found that the best leaders have the high emotional intelligence; yes they are motivated, but they also are to feel others energies’ and know when to push or hold back – they have empathy. They act consistently and are self-aware, they are in control of their own emotions. The best leaders understand the importance of relationships at all levels and treat people as people, not just resources. A leader that can be respected is someone you can trust and who trusts you – integrity is at the heart of what they do.

Sheetal: Leadership to me is an act of leading with head, heart and soul.  It is about leading while being aware of the larger system and being aware of the world we live in, and the awareness of the impact our singular actions have on the environment around us.  I feel it is both a responsibility and a privilege and that it is a role that belongs to each of us.  We all play a leadership role with those around us and for me leadership is about stepping into that role with the awareness that each one of us can influence the world around us positively by engaging with the community around us.  Leadership also means for me to live and lead on purpose with intentionality, to leave the world a better place, to have an impact on the world around us and to serve those around us. Leadership is an act of love; how can we show up for each other with love, with respect for the diversity of each one, for acceptance of and collaboration with the different perspectives that there are?  Leadership is about being present, about listening and about leading from that still centre point.  Leadership is about collaborating and allowing what may emerge as we come together.

  1. In your learning about leadership, who inspires you? Please mention one author, historical figure or acquaintance, and why.

Ahadu: My inspiration started from reading biblical texts like Moses leading Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, Joshua leading a difficult crowd through the desert to the Promised Land, and most importantly Jesus leading humanity into newness of life. Stories of Wilberforce, William Wallace, Gandhi, Mother Theresa and the like also shake me to my core. I continue to find out heroes and heroines (individuals and groups) who keep fueling my inspiration almost every day. All of them inspire me because they shattered limitations and stretched out for the best possible life could offer without settling for what seemed impossible or are allured by transient comfort.

Konjit: My grandmother is my greatest inspiration. From a very young age she made me believe that I can do the impossible. She enabled me to see strength and ability in all women.

My daughters inspire me to want to be a better person and mother each day!

I am grateful for the wisdom instilled in me by inspiring women, such as Alemnesh Meshesha, Sophie Jama and Bekelech Habteselase. Books by authors such as Daniel Goleman have also helped me grow in my journey.

Peter: It\’s easy to talk about all the great leaders in history but I think I have learnt more from the direct impact of my personal experience. Having had a long career I have seen the best and the worse of the impact that leaders can have on people. Sadly, more of the latter. Some of the people I have admired in my time include my first boss, Richard. We worked in a highly stressed, dynamic office environment. I was young and keen to get to make changes and push forward with some radical transformational ideas but the old guard, the operations managers who had been in place a long time seemed to just want to put obstacles in my way. Communicating my frustrations, my boss just said one thing, \’Don\’t let the bad guys get you down!\’. (I\’m sure you realise \’bad guys\’ wasn\’t quite the term used). This has helped me stay strong and resilient to pushing forward when I know it is the right thing to do. This demonstrated real empathy for my situation.

Another leader who I admired, Ron – a successful American working for the British branch in London, taught me about building relationships and understanding that to be a great leader doesn\’t mean constantly cracking the whip. At the end of every day he would walk around the office of 350 people and just chat and learn about people, learn about their lives, their families their kids etc. Can you imagine the impact this had when the CEO comes to your desk just to chat and show appreciation and attention?

A final one was a senior partner in the first stockbroking firm I worked in. He was very posh, very affluent and awfully well spoken, but what he did was just say ‘thank you’ all the time to people when they did the smallest thing for him, just doing their job. This meant more than any bonus and show that to engage people isn\’t just about money.

I can\’t leave this question without also discussing some of the leaders I have meant during my time in Addis and you\’ll be very happy to note that they are all women. I believe that over the years, and sadly it still continues today, women have such hard role to play in Ethiopia. However, these women have come through this plus other personal challenges and continue to lead not only their organisations but the cause for women empowerment and are inspirations to those around them. These people include Aster Berhane at Astunet, Samrawit Moges at Travel Ethiopia, Sem Guesh – I was in awe of her work and the inspiration she is when I visited her factory.

Sheetal:  I am inspired by not one but a few individuals who embody some beautiful leadership qualities.  A recent inspiration is the Kenyan science teacher Peter Tabichi.  Peter Tabichi gives away 80% of his income to help the poorest students at the poorly-equipped and overcrowded school, who could not otherwise afford uniforms and books. Tabichi started a “talent nurturing club” and expanded the school’s science club, helping pupils design research projects of such quality that many now qualify for national competitions. This teacher is an inspiration to me because of the servant leadership principles he is living.  I am also inspired by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden who showed tremendous amount of empathy and compassion after the New Zealand terrorist attacks at a mosque in New Zealand.   She has also prioritized the wellbeing of the nation rather than GDP.  I am inspired by these bold moves which fly in the face of political maneuvering. I am finally inspired by the women in my family who despite being brought up in a patriarchal society have all found their own way of growing, of expressing their freedom.  I am especially inspired by my mother who has no logical reason to know that we should respect diversity and freedom.  She was not taught this anywhere but she still held these values as important and transmitted them to us.  It makes me believe that these powerful values of love and respect for all are innate and intrinsic

  1. What are your self-leadership practices?

Ahadu: My practices vary from season to season depending on what I am up against or up to…the most constant ones, though, include continuous reflection/ self-awareness/ prayer, unceasing effort to make improvement on every area of my life, generously and passionately sharing my ideas and insights, reading focusing on what makes human systems change, generating and co-creating solution oriented projects on different community issues and supporting the development of other leaders.

Peter: I\’m very much aware of what it takes to be leader so within my life and my work I put into practice the disciplines I noted above. I may not always succeed but nobody said you have to be perfect and leadership is a constant learning process, as it is essentially a people focused activity. So understanding the people, their motivations, their insecurities, their ambitions and fears and just their ways of doing things is key.

So I read, I do research, I listen to webinars. I try to communicate clearly and I listen and listen some more. I start with the \’end in mind\’ so I\’m clear on what I want to achieve. I also ask for feedback to understand how I can get better. Good leaders are aware they don\’t know everything, but they make sure they have the right people around them who do.

Konjit: I engage in activities that help me grow in self-awareness, humility and gratitude.

At the end of each day, I like to reflect on what was done well, what wasn’t and on the people that played a role in my success. Sending messages of gratitude to these people is important to me. This enables me to develop humility and gratitude, which I believe are the cornerstones of selflessness.

Reflection has also been a great tool for me, not just in work but also as a Mum, to understand strengths, limitations and areas for growth.

As self-leadership practices, to me it’s of great importance to understand our own self-worth, limitations, strengths and leadership, and serve ethically and with the highest integrity.

Sheetal: I get my energy and self-leadership from meditation and mindfulness.  The stillness and silence allow me the space for self-reflection as well as the practice to be present for others as well as listen for the voice of creativity.  I journal a lot and every year revisit my values and principles and my intention statement.  This allows me to be intentional and on purpose.  I also feel that I lead myself by continuing to read and learn. I enroll in a learning programme every year.  Finally, self-care and self-love are important self-leadership practices. Making time to recharge my mind, body and soul are so vital and I am still learning how to prioritize this and not let my work responsibilities eat into this self-care.  It is easy to be hard on myself, to expect perfection so my ability to love, affirm myself, surround myself with a supportive set of friends and colleagues helps me focus on what is working and fills me with confidence and strength to face the failures and learn from my mistakes

  1. What is your wish and recommendation for emerging female leaders in Ethiopia and Africa?

Ahadu: Refuse to lead a mundane and mediocre life … you have the birth right to demonstrate to the world that there is yet another level and type of greatness in humanity. No one needs to give you an approval to freely dream and purse the same… determine to follow your heart and true desire in becoming who you freely imagine to be. The wealth and infinite resources already available in your womanhood is far greater than cultural barriers, stereotypes and other external limitations. No force can stop you from touching the stars unless you settle for limiting beliefs and crippling relationships. Embrace all the gifts of life – in and around you, expand your capabilities (including leadership skills which I believe is the chief of all other skills) and set out to make the best out of life – for yourself, and much more, for the nation and the continent that desperately a need new breed of leaders like you!

Konjit: Women have a greater capacity to lead than they can imagine. It is of essence, that emerging female leaders stand unified to disprove the false assumptions that we are not good enough.

My wish is for women to live in a world that no longer needs convincing to include women in top leadership roles. The ideal world is one that appreciates, values, encourages and empowers women to achieve their full potential.

Peter: I don\’t think gender really matters, the skills required are the same although some would say men are better risk takers and women more empathic maybe. The leaders of today need to be aware of what they are trying to achieve, plan, and plan some more, get the right people behind them and understand and believe in the goals, be flexible, be resilient, have a good balance in their life, be emotionally resourceful and be self-aware.  Understand when you don\’t have all the answers, the right attributes to carry out a certain task and communicate, repeat, communicate.

Becoming a great leader is not just a six week course and a certificate: it’s a life-long learning and doing experience.

Finally, a quote: ‘Sometimes It is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one else can imagine.’ (Alan Turing)

Sheetal: My wish for emerging female leaders in both Ethiopia and Africa is that we stay at the forefront of the journey to dismantle the unconscious biases we all hold around gender and to create a world where there is equity and respect for all human beings regardless of gender and social status or tribe.  As we emerge as female leaders, it may be easy to get caught up in the world of ambition and material success and to live by the criteria of success created by the society before us. I think we can all play a role in redefining what success means and what it means to be a leader.  When we redefine these concepts, we create a new way of leading.  Then it will be possible to create a world free from prejudice and entitlement.  I wish is that we remember to be vigilant about our shadows and acknowledge that we all are sometimes feeding the very biases we wish to see eradicated.  My recommendation would be to make time for self-reflection, to view the world systemically, to own our own limiting beliefs and biases, to work on self-change and to be open to share that journey of self-change with others, to embrace vulnerability, to learn and to listen.  The most important principle for me which I try to remind myself about every day is that I do not know everything and there is so much to learn and discover. With this story, I am able to shut up, listen to and ask about the lessons and stories of others and enrich myself.

My final message would be to see the world and all that is happening in the world either on a macro or micro level as a drama /play of life.  Each of us is an actor with various stories and scripts. We can choose which narratives and scripts we wish to live by and to enact.  It is possible to change the story and enact a new future.

As we soak in the care and knowledge of such thought leaders, here are some pearls of wisdom we can draw from:

  • Leadership is a way of being that enables us to accomplish something positive for the greater good. It requires the living of values and ethics, and working with others in a positive and mindful manner, for the creation of a better future.
  • We are touched by role models in our lives, whether they are historical figures, friends, colleagues or members of our family. They enable us to see new ways of being and doing, move us by their selfless deeds, and give us strength.
  • Leaders seem to have self-development and self-care practices, which allow for self-reflection, self-improvement and self-evolution: taking time to reflect seems to be an important practice. Very often they remind us of our humbling experiences, which leave us feeling grateful.
  • We see infinite potential in others. We are aware that everyone, and in this context, women, when connected to their worth, when breaking through self-limiting beliefs, can lead, respond to complex challenges, and make a significant difference in their contexts.

The hope is that what has been shared above will fill your thinking with new possibilities and actions.