Treasure Hunt on The Path to Success

When I was a first grader, I used to walk to school by myself. It was a time when it was still safe for kids to walk around the neighborhood on their own. Every day after school, I navigated through winding alleys, finding new routes to get home. It was sort of an urban expedition for a little kid. One day I was so lost I almost didn’t make it home. Then there was another day when I got bit by a dog. But most of the time, I had a chance to explore and be curious, and I managed to find my way home.

I didn’t know it then, but it helped me feel comfortable to operate in the unknown and get excited about it. Like most children, I knew I had no control over my environment but I would always be okay in the end. It helped me understand what it was like to approach life’s adventures with a completely open mind, as if I were on a treasure hunt – not knowing where the clue for the next step would be coming from, but nonetheless, very determined to find the treasure.

Steve Jobs said in his 2005 speech, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Ironically, we lose the sense of wonder and the sense of freedom from boundaries and predictable processes as we age. One of the biggest challenges for leaders is how to manage the innate desire for control during the process, to achieve their goals and reinvent the future.

In the early stage of a start-up, the entrepreneur often has to wear multiple hats and oversees everything in the business to stretch every dollar.  But as the company grows, the one-man-show approach is no longer effective. One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs as their businesses expand is learning how to delegate and build a new organization structure to support the growth.  It’s part of the growing pains.  Only 25% of small businesses in the U.S. generate more than half a million dollars in annual sales.  That percentage drops to 18% when it comes to women-owned enterprises, according to a new report by Womenable.  Only 2% of women-owned companies have more than $1 million in revenues. While many struggle to grow their companies beyond the $500,000 threshold, the women-owned companies in the $10 million segment are experiencing rapid growth.  In a recent interview about women entrepreneurship, Linda Alepin, Founding Director of Global Women’s Leadership Network and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, pointed to the leaders’ ability to take risks and to transform their roles from doers to enablers as the keys to sustainable growth. Entrepreneurs who are able to let go of control and find a new way to derive a sense of achievement, other than being hands-on, are more likely to continue to expand their companies after the initial success.

Peter Drucker, who is considered the father of modern management, once said, “Every organization must be prepared to abandon everything it does to survive in the future.” When we continue doing what we are doing, we continue to live in the present. To find the future is to let go of the present.

I had the chance to be a child again when I worked in Tanzania to start a food sufficiency project. I was aware that I knew nothing about Africa and agriculture. I was prepared to move forward with a stronger sense of discovery and more openness than on a typical job.

International aid programs had created a huge dependency problem in the larger cities so I was determined to go to the underserved villages where traditional values upheld. I thought about teaching them how to start small businesses but soon scrapped the idea when I witnessed the severity of the food shortage problem during one of the worst droughts in Tanzania’s recent history. Although I had received suggestions from several agricultural experts in the city about what I could do to help, I decided to hold a “town hall meeting” under the trees with the impoverished farmers in the mountainous village to design a program with them that would best serve their needs. I knew we had to find a way to address the immediate food crisis while trying to create a long-term impact. I understood that to make a sustainable change, I needed the participation and buy-in of the villagers.

At first, a couple of men asked for oxen. It would take three years to raise an ox and most oxen in the village were bony. I had a feeling that they would not be able to keep the oxen healthy or alive, especially in a drought. I encouraged them to come up with more ideas. Other men threw in different ideas. Finally a woman spoke up.

“We need knowledge!” She said in Swahili.

“Mhum.” Several other women concurred.

“That’s right! We don’t even know how to raise pigs.” Another woman chimed in. Almost every family in the village had pigs.

“We can barely feed our children with what we could grow. We need knowledge!”

That’s how we decided on providing agricultural and husbandry training programs for the farmers. But when we returned to the village a few weeks later to kick off our program, we were confronted with protests from the village leader.

“We don’t need training! We know how to farm and raise pigs. We have done that all our lives. What we need are oxen! Many villagers are upset that you are not providing us with oxen. “ He threatened us, “No one is going to come to your class today!”

We were shocked by his warning and baffled by the change of heart. What we didn’t know at the time was that the leader had been receiving bribes from the veterinarian to give immunization shots to the oxen. Having more oxen would mean more money for the leader from the veterinarian. On the other hand, I was more concerned about creating dependency with free handouts and the survival rate of the oxen. I refused to change the program agreed to by the farmers during the last visit.

What was happening in the village mirrors some of the challenges in the corporate world where  misalignment and conflict of interests are also commonplace. The challenge for leaders is how to help achieve company or community goals while managing conflicts that arise when the company’s interest could inadvertently negatively impact individuals in the group.

When I walked out of the village leader’s office, there were only few people outside waiting for our class.  Our trainers began to have doubts about my approach of not handing out cash incentive to lure farmers to our class. I was very sure that I didn’t want to create a sense of dependency on donors, but for a brief moment I also started to question whether I had listened carefully enough to the farmers’ input last time. I wondered if I missed something.

We postponed the meeting for an hour, but still there were very few people for the class. It was very disappointing. My trainer and I had just survived a landslide in order to get to the village. I was enthusiastic about helping the farmers help themselves. So I had a vested interest in seeing the project succeed. But then I realized I had to leave it up to the villagers. Their future was in their hands. I was very clear that if I couldn’t solve their problems, I was not going to add dependency to their crisis. I held my ground about not giving handouts, while “surrendering” the decision about the training to the villagers.

Leadership is not about the leader. It’s about the people you lead. It’s more about creating an environment conducive to success.

Reluctantly, I gave the trainer the go-ahead to start the class despite a small turnout. But over the next 45 minutes, more and more farmers came to the class, even after we ran out of pens and notebooks.  We all gathered under the trees at the top of the mountain. The farmers had chosen their future.

Connecting the dots as I look back, what I learned on that day was humility. I learned not to assume that we are better than or have control over the people and environment around us. Instead, the lesson was to trust in one’s own ability not simply to influence other people, but more importantly, to believe in their ability to contribute to and co-create the future. What we do have control over is how we define the meaning of the situation. Humility helps leaders be open-minded and courageous. Only when you’re willing to be vulnerable and authentic, can you allow for self-reflection and space for growth. At times, it might seem that some of the efforts were not leading to anything promising, and the path to success was not clear. But keeping a learner’s mindset and a clear focus on the goal helped me explore options and continue the pursuit.

An IBM study on global CEOs showed that more than 80% of the respondents expect greater complexity and uncertainty in the future but only 42% know how to manage it successfully. CEOs believe that “thinking creatively” is now the most important leadership quality. The report indicates, “Creative leaders embrace ambiguity and take calculated risks that disrupt the legacy business models. They rely less on old hierarchical style of leadership and are more open-minded in expanding their management style to engage the new generation of employees, customers and partners.”  The most successful organization co-create products and services with customers and key stakeholders.

Embrace complexity and ambiguity with an open mind. Be curious and inventive. As Steve Jobs would say,

“Stay hungry.  Stay foolish.”