Boundary Crossing: A key to Successful Leadership in Tomorrow’s Liberia
By: Jackson Fiah Doe Jr.
December 17, 2009
As owner of a building service contracting company, I am constantly crossing boundaries. Boundary crossing, in my judgment, basically means relating to people of different backgrounds, embracing opposing ideas, concepts, and points of views; it also has to do with learning new things. In light of this, I tend to shuttle between two contrasting worlds on a regular basis. For instance, I can easily make a shift from signing a contract dressed in a business suit to wearing work clothes while buffing floors at a moment’s notice. Such is the nature of my industry. But this ability to shift gears effortlessly has immensely helped me hone valuable skills needed to connect with people in high as well as low places. This sort of ability will be critical to successful leadership in tomorrow’s Liberia. There are different ways to cross boundaries Embracing diversity, design thinking, learning agility, resolving conflicts and tolerating criticism.
Ways to Cross Boundaries
Leaders of tomorrow’s Liberia must know how to lead a diverse group of people. They can do so by being socially intelligent. According to Daniel Goldman, a psychologist at Rutgers University, social intelligence is a set of interpersonal competencies which a person possesses that enables him/her to bring out the best in others (Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, September 2008). There are several components of social intelligence which include Empathy, attunement, cultural awareness, and persuasion. In order for tomorrow’s leaders to win over people of diverse backgrounds, they have to be empathic, that is, these leaders must know how others feel. There is an old Chinese saying that, “I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; but I do and I understand”. Only when one walks a proverbial mile in the shoes of others will he/she understand why some people do what they do. Also, to have a real connection with someone, it is critically important to be attuned to that person. In other words, a future Liberian leader has got to listen attentively to truly understand someone. Moreover, aspiring leaders have to familiarize themselves with the cultures of the different ethnic groups so as to truly bond with them. Most people see the world through the prism of culture. Therefore, to influence a group of people, it is necessary to understand their culture to know what make them tick.
Additionally, prospective leaders must be persuasive. There are three types of persuasion: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos is persuasion based on logic. This requires providing proof or evidence to convince someone. Pathos has to do with convincing a person on the basis of emotions. Last, ethos deals with persuasion based on a leader’s personal credibility (Donald Sull, Revival of the Fittest: Harvard Business school Press, P.115). In light of the foregoing, prospective leaders will have to connect with people of different backgrounds to be successful. They must take these various constituencies into account when making decisions. Doing otherwise will be disastrous to their political careers.
Future leaders of Liberia should subscribe to design thinking to make better decisions. Design thinking integrates elements from the different sides of the brain to come up with a creative but replicable solution to a problem. The human brain has two hemispheres: Left and right. The left hemisphere specializes in tasks that are logical, linear, sequential, and analytical. These tasks use quantitative methodologies to arrive at decisions. In contrast, the right hemisphere handles tasks that are intuitive: empathy, design, creativity, meaning, play, story, and imagination (Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind). Thus, this side of the brain employs intuitive thinking (Knowing without reasoning) to reach conclusions.
Design thinking takes imagination or invention of the future from intuitive thinking and combines it with deductive or inductive reasoning from analytical thinking to solve a problem (Roger Martin, Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage). To make this more concrete, let’s imagine for a minute it is the year 2030 and the president of Liberia is trying to resolve a conflict between the natives and settlers in a certain part of the country. According to the natives, the settlers don’t respect their culture. But the settlers contend the natives are envious of their hard-earned wealth. However, the president is not convinced. He wants to go deeper. Thus, he attempts to really find out the root causes of the conflict. So he goes to the region several times and interviews with people from the region. Through deep observation, he senses possible sources of the conflict. His intuition tells him that the settlers’ unwillingness to fully assimilate into that society, as well as the natives’ low level of education, have triggered the conflict. Therefore, the president concludes (Via intuitive thinking) that, to bring about a long-lasting solution to the problem, it is imperative to capture the hearts and minds of the young people in that region. So, by way of analytical thinking, he comes up with an action by issuing an executive order, which mandates that all children in that region age three and above must be enrolled in school. Additionally, every student in the area has to learn the language and cultures of the other group.
In a nutshell, my own view is that leaders of tomorrow’s Liberia should not rely on intuition or analytical thinking alone in dealing with difficult problems. They must use design thinking - which blend analytical thinking with intuitive thinking - to adequately solve the complex problems they will inevitably face.
Learning agility simply means learning new things quickly. It will be a useful tool for successful leadership in the new Liberia. The world is constantly changing. Thus, prospective leaders of Liberia will have to keep pace with these changes, as old ideas, concepts, challenges and solutions are giving way to new ones. Therefore, future leaders must learn new things to keep abreast of changing developments in the country in particular and the world in general. In the words of Ray Stata, Co-founder of Analog Devises, a Semi-conductor company in the USA, “The rate at which organizations and individuals learn may well become the only sustainable competitive advantage”. Prospective leaders who are learning continuously will undoubtedly gain a significant edge over rivals.
Aspiring Leaders must not consider themselves the geniuses who know it all. Instead, they have to be ones naively asking tough questions regarding issues don’t know a lot about. They will need to surround themselves with people who know more than they do as regards matters in different domains. This way, they will learn a lot. As Oliver Wendell Holmes (A former United States Jurist) once said, “A man’s mind, once stretched by new ideas, never regains its original dimensions”. Future leaders of our beloved country will need to stretch their minds by learning new things. This will allow them to become better leaders, as they will make sound decisions based on good information. Liberian leaders of yesteryears were unwilling to learn new things. They were oblivious to the changes that were happening in the country. As a result, they were swept by the tide of change. In light of this, future leaders must be agile learners; otherwise, they will suffer the same fate as their predecessors.
I am of the view that in order for leaders of tomorrow’s Liberia to be truly successful, they must be conflict mediators. Because our country comprises a diverse group of people, conflict is bound to occur. Thus, it is important that our leaders strive to settle disputes among their citizens. As people become freer to express themselves, they will fight for what rightfully belongs to them. This inevitably gives rise to conflict. Because of this, future leaders of Liberia must be proactive in identifying and defusing potential conflict across the nation. If not, conflicts will proliferate, which might destabilize the country. In the past, most of our leaders fared poorly in resolving conflicts. For instance, the late president Samuel K. Doe and General Thomas Quiwonkpa, former of commanding General of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) were unwilling or unable to settle their differences. Consequently, their dispute snowballed into an ethnic conflict between the Krahns on the one hand, and the Manos and Gios on the other hand. This gave rise to the Liberian civil war, in which tens of thousands lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands sought refuge in neighboring countries. The debris of the civil war is still very visible in our country today. Had Doe and Quiwonkpa made every effort to resolve their conflict, perhaps Liberia might not have had civil war.
A Tolerance for Criticism
Criticisms, especially the ones of the constructive variety, can be very helpful to a leader. Constructive criticism is analogous to bitter medicine that a patient needs in order to get well. Leaders of tomorrow’s Liberia should, for better or worse, have a tolerance for criticism. This will give them an opportunity to hear the truth. Therefore, prospective Liberian leaders must go to great length to find out what people truly think about how well they doing on the job. They can do so by having town hall meetings, managing by walking around, conducting anonymous surveys, reading articles and commentaries from critics, and so forth. As former United States president Bill Clinton once said, “My critics are my friends because they want tell me things that I am doing that are not right”. So Leaders need critics to tell them like it is. This will in turn help these leaders make better decisions, for rough seas make for good captains.
I am of the view that leaders of tomorrow’s Liberia must be boundary crossers to become successful. Because the country is becoming increasing heterogeneous and complex, future leaders must strive to reach out to the different groups and persuade them to develop a sense of national identity. Liberians tend to prioritize the interests of their ethnic groups above those of their country, which is not a very good thing. Thus, only a leader who crosses boundary can instill in them a love for country. Also, embracing design thinking, continuously learning, resolving conflicts, and tolerating criticism will enable future leaders of Liberia to make good decisions, thereby becoming better leaders.