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Does Vulnerability Lead to Courageous Leadership?

Lisa Jones | October 21, 2016

In early October, 20 founders of social change ventures under 30 years of age boarded flights from their corners of the word—Madagascar, Pakistan, Brazil, Zambia—18 different countries in total. Their destination? The 2016 Laureate Global Fellowship Retreat, held this year in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Each Fellow arrived at the retreat center with his or her assortment of apprehensions—from leaving behind young children, to wondering if their work stood up against the achievements of the other nineteen innovators they were about to meet. Most arrived with inboxes already full from the flow of questions and urgent to-dos coming from their team back home.

Accustomed to didactic conferences and constantly being “on” for pitching her social change solution, Rashida Namulondo, founder of the Sophie Muwanika Institute of Art for Change in Uganda, shared on social media on the first day of training the words of IYF Social Innovation Director Ashok Regmi that made it clear this retreat would be different: “He said, ‘allow yourselves to be vulnerable so you can learn. Here you don't have to prove yourselves to anyone. It took 50 judges from 20 different countries to select you as Fellows. We already know you’re awesome.

During the retreat, Fellows were encouraged to put their ‘true self’ forward rather than their ‘best self’. They reflected on their motivations for tackling challenging social problems, gained tools for empowering their teams and volunteers to meet their fullest potential, and experimented with new ways of looking at old problems. Most importantly, they were able to step back from the rush of daily life and look at their personal leadership journeys, and the evolution of their venture, to see what is working and what could be better—all in a safe space that allowed for open exchange and peer learning.

In attending the retreat, each Fellow left behind a community in his or her country who relies on them in important ways—for Rashida, it’s secondary school girls in Uganda who need a safe space to express their emotions. For Luisa Bonin, founder of Tamo Junto in Brazil, it’s the millions of micro-entrepreneurs across the country who want to learn basic business skills. For Saddam Sayyaleh, founder of I Learn in Jordan, it’s children living in refugee camps who want to have the same access to quality education that their peers in nearby cities enjoy.

The pressure of meeting the needs of those they serve, coupled with the stress of finances, rejection, and tough decisions, make leading social change as a young person lonely at times.

“My team expects me to always have all the answers,” said Luisa, during a session on failure. A long pause followed. “I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t have the answers more often than I do have them.”

Each time a Fellow shared a failure—from botching a difficult conversation with a team member, to completely misreading a donor’s intention to support their work—they were met with understanding and encouragement.

“I saw, for the first time, that I am not alone in my self-doubt,” shared Luisa on the last day of the retreat. “Making mistakes means I am trying new things. Sharing this experience with other young leaders helped me see that I am part of a bigger picture and I feel stronger knowing we are working and struggling to change the world together.”

Fellows came to the retreat with challenges both unique and shared, many at pivotal decision-making moments in their ventures. “When I came here, I was seriously questioning whether I was doing the right things with my work and if I should continue,” admitted Rashida. “Now I have so many new ideas and tools, I am excited to go home and get started. This experience gave me the courage to keep going.”

For some young leaders, the greatest challenge is the environment they are working in, like Salaheddine Moutacharif, who is connecting university students in Morocco with jobs to help them afford to continue their education, in a country where unemployment is high even for those with degrees. For others, who they are as people proves to be most challenging element of leading change, like Sharon Adongo, co-founder of Uwazi Technology Consulting, who often faces blatant gender discrimination as a woman leader in Kenya.

When young founders of social change ventures like Rashida, Luisa, Salaheddine and Sharon connect and share their experiences, when they are given the opportunity to be vulnerable and grow as leaders, the result is transformational. They strengthen their resolve to return home and make sure that they are doing the right things—not just doing things right—for those they serve. They gain courage to take risks and try new approaches and models. Most critically, they coalesce into a community of peers they can call on for support in moments when they don’t feel like the leaders or changemakers others count on them to be.

In a world that perceives leadership as strength, certainty, and confidence, these young leaders showed us that being authentic and open about who you are and the challenges you face is the first step to being an effective leader.

While strategy, planning, and systems all have a place, in the end it’s people who are at the core of social change. At this year’s retreat, the 20 Laureate Global Fellows were reminded that they are people too—not just ventures. They join YouthActionNet’s global network of 1400+ young leaders like them, and together, anything is possible.