Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Value of Sustainable Leadership

In the months following our return from India, I often found myself reflecting on the trip and our sustainability projects started in Dahod. What good did we do? Does any of it really matter? Did two weeks in India change anything for me?

Now having time to look back on our travels, I realize that this experience has taught me some of the most valuable lessons in leadership to date.

According to, "sustainability" is defined as the capacity to endure. At the core of sustainability is commitment -- the willingness to pursue and follow through with a belief, project, or cause.

Like any typical college student, I have been a part of several student organizations, group projects, and extracurricular activities. Throughout my undergrad career, I have always marveled at how some projects seem to fall beyond the scope of college students yet are accomplished and yield incredible results while other goals appear to have huge potential yet fail to even become a reality.

Why do some groups succeed while others fail? I'm sure there are millions of theories on this topic, but the greatest lesson I have gained from my Indian experience is this:

Incredible goals can be reached when leaders are concerned for the sustainability of the group. Attainable goals can fail when individuals refuse to act as a team.

While in India, our group began several discussions on what we were hoping to achieve and how we were going to do it. Having some difficulty reconciling 18 different opinions, we eventually came to the conclusion that (a) two weeks is an incredibly short time to implement any large-scale construction project without appropriate equipment, (b) the needs of the region were not clearly defined, and (c) the fate of the project would ultimately be left in the hands of future travel groups. With these points in mind, we ultimately decided to focus on assessing water quality and local household situations while educating our host non-profit organization (Sadguru NGO) on benefits and techniques for water purification. Though many of us would have liked accomplish more for the citizens of Dahod, each of us was willing to put our own visions aside for the sustainability of the project by gathering useful information for future travel groups. With the data obtained on our trip, future groups are now able to further expand the project by making informed plans for improving water quality in Dahod.

Even after India, I've found that group sustainability is vital to the success of projects in other developing nations. Inspired by our work in India, I recently became involved with Cincinnati-led initiative known as the Village Life Outreach Project (VLOP). Focusing on engineering, health, and educational aspects of international poverty, VLOP travels to three villages in Tanzania twice every year to assess and implement poverty-fighting projects in these towns.

Interestingly, VLOP relies on the cooperation and teamwork of entire villages to make these projects succeed. Twice a year, VLOP brings hundreds of mosquito nets to the villages to prevent the deadly spread of malaria. Rather than distributing the nets for free as "charity hand-outs", VLOP volunteers charge a nominal fee per net (roughly 50 cents) that is much lower than the actual value of the net ($5). By requiring the nets to be purchased, villagers are more likely to use and maintain the nets in their homes. Because 4 weeks each year is not enough time to distribute mosquito nets and implement other projects, VLOP selects representatives from each village to voluntarily sell the nets to their neighbors. Each representative receives 4 nets, which they then sell to their neighbors at $0.50 per net. After selling all four nets, the representative brings the money to the VLOP headquarters and receives four more nets to sell.

"What prevents a villager from selling the first four nets and pocketing the money for themselves?" I asked at our last VLOP meeting.

"Two dollars of pocket change isn't worth the shame a villager would bring upon their household once it is discovered that they are stealing from their neighbors," another VLOP member explained. "By choosing to steal, they would earn $2 for years of harsh feelings from the other villagers."

By entrusting aspects of their projects to the recipients themselves, VLOP is systematically ensuring the sustainability of their work by encouraging villagers to take a personal stake in reducing their own poverty. By implementing projects that require the villagers to act as a team, the entire village benefits beyond the interests of only a few individuals.

Suprisingly, these lessons in sustainable leadership have helped me most in my personal and professional life after graduation. Upon finishing my undergraduate career, I made the bold decision to leave my year-long research position to pursue another job of similar caliber. Though there was no monetary benefit to changing jobs, I had begun to realize that my former employer lacked the qualities of sustainable leadership. Taking little interest in the needs of the employees, the office adopted a mantra of "anything for the sake of the project", which discouraged collaboration and left little room for the well-being of the team members. Consequently, even with expensive equipment and cutting-edge technology, hardly any progress was made by any employee throughout the year of my employment. Without sustainable leadership to encourage comraderie among team members, the work environment became increasingly hostile as funding began to dissipate.

Upon starting my new job, I truly began to appreciate the value of sustainable leadership in the workplace. By taking a supportive role in the lives and careers of his employees, my new employer subconsciously established a strong work ethic in his research team. Employees are encouraged to explore opporitunities for career growth, collaborate with other experts to improve subject knowledge, and work together to solve problems. By allowing employees to invest in themselves, individuals are always willing to work harder for the team. In short, a positive work environment has created a sustainable workplace.

Amazingly, merely two weeks in India has taught me the most valuable lesson of my life -- invest in others and they will invest in you.