In her poem, Vesalius in Zante published in 1909, Edith Wharton noted that there are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Looking back at the last twenty-two years of doing youth development work in Kenya and the region, I hope that I have contributed to the lighting of as many candles and mirrors as I had the capacity to. As a product of mentorship, myself, I knew just how much difference intentional mentorship could make and wanted to build something that would provide a safe space for young people to be mentored, coached, and supported to unleash the greatness in them.
The journey and experience of founding and running a youth-serving organization for 11 years have taught me the most. In this period, I have learnt about humanity, leadership, trust, communication, initiative, grit, daring, teamwork, and the amazing impact of just believing in one young person. I’m grateful to God for this far I have come.
In these few paragraphs, I share eleven of the most profound leadership lessons I have learnt from my eleven years as the Founder and Executive Director of ELF-Africa.
- A leadership infused with genuine love and empathy is sustainable: I believe that love is the most powerful force for changing society. In today’s world, love and empathy might be seen as highly utopian, but they are the core of any purposeful leadership. Love and empathy for self and others are a must for sustainable leadership.
- Know thyself: I believe it is impossible to lead any change without knowing yourself. The genesis of finding one’s passion and purpose, strengths, weaknesses etc., is understanding the self. What is your story? What’s the narrative you have created around your story? For me, the greatest achievement thus far, has been finding me and knowing me. I am grateful for this. When everything else is stripped away, what are you left with? And who really are you?
- Self-care is not selfish; it is necessary: Leadership effectiveness is shaped by the ability of an individual to lead and take care of self. Human beings can only serve and love to the extent they practice self-care and well-being. Many leaders and people in positions of authority are busy burning out and missing out on life’s precious moments in the name of working hard. Prioritize your self-care because, without it, you’re simply chasing an illusion.
- Leaders are human, too: People in positions of authority are human, and they, too, have fears and doubts. They shouldn’t take themselves too seriously to have to know everything. Leaders are human too. There are times they do not know the answer. There are times when they are weak and need a lifting hand. There are times when they are lost and need a guiding hand. It takes vulnerability for leaders to admit to those they lead that they do not know. Vulnerability is an act of courage and humility. It is okay not to know the answer. It’s okay to seek help and support. This is leadership too.
- Genuinely listen: one of the most significant discoveries in my leadership journey thus far is that it pays to listen. Listening to feedback, ideas, correction, and observations is critical to successful and impactful leadership. I am learning to cultivate a culture of open feedback and communication because this is helping my team and me grow. It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.
- Grow a team: It’s impossible to achieve anything alone. We must grow and diversify our teams and bring on board professionals with different areas of expertise and similar values to help take the vision to the next level. I am blessed to have smarter humans in my team working with me to realize the vision of ELF-Africa. I am a better human because of them.
- Trust the process: Change is a process. Everything is a process. It may take time to come by, but it’s worth the wait. Embrace grit and consistency in the journey. It will make sense in the end. The dots will somehow connect someday.
- Trust is necessary: Choose to engage from a place of trust. A lot more gets done when leaders are secure in who they are and trust their team members, then when they let fear rule. Trust also applies to partners and stakeholders. Fear is a stumbling block to progress and growth. Try trust. It works.
- Incorporate systems thinking approach to engage meaningfully for meaningful change. Observing and assessing the system, actors, power at play, tools, rules, and the operating environment helps in knowing where to exert energy, where to invest, how, for how long, when and who to collaborate with. It helps to understand how to measure success. At Emerging Leaders Foundation-Africa, we have seen the power of beginning with the end in mind and working backwards.
- There is power in building synergies and collaborating with like-minded organizations. We achieve more when we collaborate than when we work in silos. As a personal example, our partnership with Emerging Public Leaders and the Public Service Commission of Kenya in implementing the Public Service Emerging Leaders Fellowship is rich, fruitful, and deeply fulfilling. We can all tap into our competitive edge and add value to the partnership. We are better together.
- Young people rock! An Armenian statesman Karekin Njteh once opined that if you want to know the future of a nation, look at its youth. The level and quality of meaningful engagement of young women and men determine the prospects of a country or society. We are improving on how we invest in our young people, and I know we can do way better. I challenge you to have sessions to objectively listen to the young people in your institution or space, and you will realize the enormous power in those creative, brilliant, visionary young souls.
Caren Wakoli (left) handing over a cheque to Mr. Ndungu Nyoro of Affecto Foundation
As a learning organization, we will continue to engage young people more meaningfully – listening to their voices, co-create with them and amplifying their voices. We are working to contribute towards shifting narratives about youth from being viewed as liabilities to them being seen and appreciated as a great asset to society’s growth and development. We are working to raise young peoples’ consciousness about their abilities and capacities for more effective involvement and influence. We have grown from operating in only one county to being present in 13 counties. Our plan this year is to reach young people in all the 47 counties in Kenya. Furthermore, we are working to bring to life our hashtag in this strategic dispensation; #GoAfrica.
I invite you to come and join us as we work to contribute towards a dignified society with values-based leaders.
And when all is said and done, may we, ELF-Africa, be found to be true, faithful, committed, and devoted to the service of developing values-based and servant leaders who are transforming Kenya and Africa.
Caren Wakoli is the Founder and Executive Director of ELF-Africa.