Natasha and I have just returned from Liberia in West Africa on a logistics trip for the Leaders in Liberia programme in February 2017.
I had a particularly powerful experience that deepened my understanding of the distinction between serving and pleasing in the most fundamental way.
Liberia – a country “in need”
Just for context, Liberia is the fourth poorest county in the world with 85% unemployment rate and 3/4 of the population live under the poverty line on less than a $1.00 a day. 60% of children in Liberia never go to school and the average school years of all adults is 3 years – education is not free and there is a massive shortage of qualified, committed teachers.
Liberia is also,howver and extremely beautiful, green and fertile country. Its people are warm, friendly and open and the nation is making real strides to get back on its feet now ebola is confined to the past.
On our recent trip we visited a school, which I was last at in 2014. The school is still unfinished after almost 10 years.
After being greeted by the children singing their school anthem I was asked to say a few words – I didn’t know what to say. I felt desperately sad and really uplifted at the same moment – the schools kids were standing in an empty shell of a building which holds so many dreams – they actually still do their schooling in a building down the road where 2 or 3 grades are combined in the same classroom because their building is totally inadequate. 300 children, so committed to their own learning that they endure the sweltering heat and cramped conditions each day.
Many of the students are orphans (the town where the school is located was devastated by Ebola) and come to school not having eaten since the day before and unlikely to eat until the evening. But this was not a sorrowful occasion. Kids are so resilient – after the formalities, we went outside and invented games and ran around with the kids until we were all sweating bullets but having a lot of fun.
Sharing their plight
At a certain point, the teachers asked if they could speak to me. I agreed and we stepped outside and they surrounded me in a tight semicircle.
They said they wanted to share their plight with me. They told me they are all volunteers at the school, that they have several jobs to put themselves through university and they have to travel for hours each day to get to the school. They told me what a struggle their lives were and how hard it was to keep going.
I listened and I empathized – I was asking myself how I could help help them. I felt powerless. I could understand their circumstances, but I couldn’t give them what they are asking for. I didn’t have the answers they wanted. I didn’t know what to say.
This is a dilemma all leaders face regardless of the context – people looking ot you for answers when the answers don’t yet exist.
Empowerment not aid
But I am a coach to my core – I was not there to please them, I had gone to Liberia to serve and so put the question back to them. I challenged them to look at what they did have – these teachers are some of a tiny number of people in Liberia with a university education – I told them to put their minds together, not to look outside of themselves for the answers to be delivered and I told them to look for solutions that they could create for themselves with what they do have.
That was so difficult – to look them in the eye and feel their need and yet say “No” to helping them. But my purpose in Liberia is to support people in changing their mindsets because if the people do not find a way to think differently their lives will never change.
Serve not Please
I told them I helped people who were prepared to help themselves. I gave them my card and said I would support any of them who made the effort to contact me and tell me what they are prepared to do in order to try and change their situation. I told them if any of them asked me for money then I would cut off the communications – I challenged them to step up – I don’t know if any will contact me, but I was there to serve not please.
Hold a dream bigger than they can hold for themselves
I have had restless nights since I returned, asking myself if I could have done more. But I am convinced that how I can best serve this country is to use my objectivity, to believe in a future that is bigger and brighter than they can see for themselves – This is my purpose and how I believe I can be of real service. It is the way that I can lead.
If you’d like to know more about Leaders in Liberia – please contact me or visit www.thebigidea.space