What Leadership Means to Me

By Benjamin Yesufu
I have thought of myself as a leader for as long as I can remember. Growing up as the eldest of three sons, I learnt at a young age that leadership meant responsibility. I knew that a leader had to take decisions for others, and that a leader would be answerable for the actions and inactions of the team. In high school, I served as the Chapel Prefect. In a faith-based institution, the Chapel Prefect is responsible for many aspects of the daily schedule, in addition to responsibilities for worship gatherings and other major programs. During my prefectship, all leadership meant to me revolved around positions of authority and the duties attached to them. I thought of leadership as a role that a person could be appointed or elected to, only for a period of time, to exercise control over other people.

My definition of leadership has evolved over the past year. Apart from all the lessons I have learnt in ELP, I have also become more intentional about my personal development and emotional growth. I have come to understand that leadership is not about power, control, or bossing people around. Leadership, at its core, is not about authority. Taking up the responsibility of coordinating a group to achieve a common goal, whether as the head of the group or not, is the true meaning of leadership to me. This definition of leadership captures the most basic and essential task of any leader, and is applicable in any situation.

As a young boy, what mattered to me was that I did not want to be tagged a bad leader. I did not aspire to exceptional leadership, but I did aim to avoid terrible performance. I think my highest leadership role till date was in the last few years of high school. As was the norm, I was selected to serve as the Assistant Chapel Prefect in SS2. About a term later, the Chapel Prefect finished her courses and moved on to the United Kingdom. I was then appointed as the new Chapel Prefect to lead the other four assistant chapel prefects. To add to these responsibilities, it so happened that I was placed in an extension of the main hostel designed to accommodate spillovers from the main hostel. I was the only Prefect in my new hostel and the burden fell on me to be in charge there as well. With my determination not to be a bad leader, blurred as it was, I was able to successfully assume these roles. I performed very well and handed over to the next set of people.

A few months before the appointment, all the selected prefects attended a leadership training course at the Sea School Citizenship and Leadership Training Center for about 2 weeks. We learnt a lot about leadership there, much of which has been repeated during the ELP course.

One major thing that stuck with me then, and which I continue to hold on to, is the fact that a leader should lead by example. It may sound cliché that that is what is expected of a leader to do, but many people do not lead by example. Leading by example entails doing the things you  expect from your followers. I could not remain undressed and expect to hurry the students up so that they would not be late for school. I would have no moral basis for my instructions. If they could see that I had obeyed my own instructions, then they had no reason whatsoever not to be ready. This was the principle I applied throughout my subsequent leadership roles, and it worked like magic. I found that I was respected for that, and I think that was a good thing.

My most important passion is learning. I sincerely enjoy finding out new things, whether through discovering them myself or being taught by someone else. Doing research helps with the former, and writing with the latter, so I naturally gravitate towards these activities as well. There are many people in the world, however, who do not have access to quality education, much less the privilege of enjoying it. Many economic, social and political factors contribute to this problem. To help in its eradication, I think the most important skill is critical thinking. The most drastic changes in the world started as ideas, and conceptualizing helpful solutions will only be possible through diligent research, analysis and brainstorming. Another important skill is teamwork, as such a lofty cause cannot be supported alone. While I have fairly good interpersonal skills, I  must further expose myself to mentally stimulating material in order to build my critical thinking skills.

I once heard someone say that every action that a person takes is driven by their values, even the most mundane actions. In analyzing the decisions that I have made in the past and in light of my experientials in ELP classes, I have found this statement to be true. My top six values, in no particular order (except the first), are: integrity, fairness, honesty, resilience, patience and kindness. There are many world leaders that I look up to and hope to one day be like, simply because of the characteristics that I see in them which align with my personal values. Integrity, in particular, is very important to me because it provides a moral basis for my leadership style, as I have earlier explained. I would never work with someone whose integrity is questionable, and I do not expect anyone to work with me if my integrity is questionable either. In a recent ELP deliverable, I discovered just how important fairness and kindness were to me and how they had become, unconsciously, a bedrock of my decision-making process. This deliverable involved deciding which survivors of a storm I would save and which ones  I would have to leave behind. I found that, even with utilitarian decision-making, I was comfortable with my final answer.

Self-leadership is not a concept that I have found to be particularly popular, but it is important to apply leadership skills in personal life. I lead myself by setting goals and standards for myself and sticking to them. This involves self-discipline and motivation, which, while not automatic, are definitely rewarding. It is on this same basis that I engage others: a concerted effort from everyone involved on a task or project, emphasizing each person’s strengths, with the aim of efficiently achieving a collective goal. This outlook is as a result of the pivotal change in my perception of leadership, from viewing it through the lens of authority to viewing it through the lens of collaboration. The most salient points of my leadership approach are cooperation, innovation and organization.

It is impossible to fit my leadership paradigm into an established archetype: in reality, my approach to leadership is a blend of several models. I consider myself a servant leader first and foremost, but I consider myself a transactional-transformational leader as well. As has been earlier described, one major element of leadership for me is exemplariness. I also possess valuable communication and conflict resolution skills, which are necessary for successful transformational leadership. Bass (1985) found that these increase productivity and team engagement. On the other hand, I am not shy in applying sanctions and clearly defining roles within a team.

I aspire to a more refined and effective leadership style, but it is important to note that one may very well find that leadership styles are almost always dependent on context. I have found the theory of social constructivism in leadership to be more comprehensive in this regard, as it considers the importance of culture and context in leadership, not just in the leader but in the team at large. (Billsberry, 2013). A social-constructivist leadership paradigm explains that leaders should consider subjectively the uniqueness of other team members in order to lead more effectively. For example, leading a group of fellow students to complete a school project is vastly different from leading a brainstorming session for business purposes. Both scenarios call for different leadership styles and skills.

My core purpose is contained in my personal mission statement, which is: “to continually work on being a better version of myself through constant discovery, exploration and self-reflection using critical thinking”. Personal development is really just a means to an end: the ultimate goal is to achieve tangible progress in solving a basic world problem, access to quality education. As earlier explained, the eradication of this problem is of immense personal importance because of my own passion for learning. I believe that it is unfair and avoidable for many to be deprived of the opportunities for improvement that can only be accessed when a person is educated.

Moving forward, and in line with my most immediate goal to complete my degree, I would like to see my leadership outlook evolve in the next four years. In particular, I would like to observe CEOs in my field and other leaders and industry influencers in order to gain perspective on what the practical translation of leadership principles are. Internships, while providing much-needed work experience, would also afford me proximity to leaders from whom I can learn. I hope to actively observe and absorb these experiences, and clarify my leadership style in the process.

In writing this Leadership Map, I have found clarity in the process of synthesizing my leadership story with all the learning I have done in EL. I plan to revisit the Map yearly, not only to update it, but to remind myself of the different elements that make up my leadership style. I will challenge myself to be accountable to the standards I have set for myself in this Leadership Map by reading it as often as I can, and by making a conscious effort to incorporate the goals I have set out in it into my personal short- and long-term goals. I will also try to read more books and articles to expand my knowledge on the subject, and I will continue to work on being a better version of myself.

This reflection was written by Benjamin Yesufu, a student at Elizade University as part of the requirements for the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program delivered by The Afara Initiative

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