Supporting lived experiences through Leadership and Identity course

Drawing from the conviction that one of the most effective tools in cultivating leadership is knowledge of the self, between January and April 2017 we ran a Leadership and Identity course for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Edinburgh. This unassessed course for the first cohort of scholars – undergraduate and postgraduate – was new for all of us. After the end of the hectic first semester from September to December, our aim was to create an engaged space for reflection where leadership could be grounded in both self-awareness and empathy.

We met monthly in groups of six students, divided by gender. The goal was to create a safe and comfortable space in which scholars could examine issues relating to cultural difference, race, gender, and other identity dynamics that emerge in international settings. We also wanted to help them identify and develop their individual strengths and group resources for articulating their experiences and achieving their goals as individuals and as MasterCard scholars.

We facilitated the discussions around a small selection of readings and videos that helped guide students toward better understanding the self, others, and how to work together for action. The students were curious and a bit wary at first. “What’s this about?” “We have spent so much time talking about leadership already.” “Why is our group all boys/girls?” But, early on they realized these conversations were not what they were used to. There were no right answers, only questions, provocations, and space for reflecting, sharing, and challenging each other.

“I was curious to find out what exactly would happen because this was my first time being in a reading group on leadership and identity. …The discussion groups were split according to gender and this enabled my group, the ladies, to be more open and comfortable with each other which led to more honest conversations” said Munini, a first-year undergraduate from Kenya.

The readings, while short, were carefully curated to prompt discussion and inspire the students to think about leadership in new ways. Munini continued, “The articles and videos we were to read and watch before the reflection sessions were a good way of preparing for the discussions because they provided an opportunity for introspection.” We combined TED talks by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on feminism and Brené Brown on vulnerability, with political analysis by the British rapper Akala, and essays from Caribbean poet Audre Lorde.

By focusing on pieces by African writers, artists, and speakers, the students linked their own experiences to the diverse perspectives and realities of African women and men from across the diaspora. Undergraduate scholar Vanessa, from Kenya, described, “The readings and videos were a key tool for reflection. Beyond being informative, they were in a way soothing and healing as they brought out a number of similar experiences, outlooks and challenges. Having a chance to discuss them helped further reflection and the confidence to share thoughts on them in relation to my personal life.” Collectively, they gave students the language and conceptual tools with which to explore their own values and identities, rather than striving to become an externally idealized version of leaders.

Grounding our conversations in scholars’ individual lived experiences helped them tap into the ways they already demonstrate and realize their leadership potential. Empathy, moral leadership, “crucial conversations”, and the challenge of accepting situations you cannot change were strong themes in both the men’s and women’s discussions. As postgraduate scholar Soufia, from Mauritius, said, “It felt like a very safe place for us to see things in a new light and to explore ideas that often feel too political for scholars to address. The reading group was a space to grow together and learn from each other’s wisdom, fears, insecurities and questions but also a space to be still and to take the much-needed time to process our experiences. It was truly an important component of the MCF scholar’s journey for me.”

Our seminars culminated in a group session in which each scholar shared a personal manifesto which brought together the full group connecting the conversations around self, others, and action into a kaleidoscope of scholars’ approaches to leadership. Some students wrote their manifestos as letters to family or peers, others wrote poems, essays, and letters to self. Each student demonstrated a gentle facility with their own sense of self and how they wanted to be in the world that they had not fully tapped into at the start of the year. Munini said, “there was a sense of growth and mutual respect in how we shared [the manifesto] in the group despite not having been in the same reflection sessions before that day.”

In the end, the Leadership and Identity sessions did not just benefit the scholars in their individual journeys toward transformational leadership, it transformed the group as a whole. For us, as facilitators, it was a humbling and eye-opening experience. We could not avoid absorbing the same lessons we were imparting: we became more self-aware, better communicators, and more keenly aware of how to realize our values and convictions in projects and interactions both big and small as a result of working with this inspiring first cohort. More than anything, they demonstrated the integrity of transforming self-reflection into action.

Barbara Bompani, Reader in African and International Development and Academic Lead on The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Edinburgh & Zoe Marks, Lecturer in African Studies, the University of Edinburgh