Leading in a Global Mosaic Part VII: Fostering a Learning Mindset

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A Minority Everywhere I Go: Leading in a Global Mosaic Part VII

Fostering a Learning Mindset

By Lucy Shenouda

Published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 20 | Sept/Oct 2015

I’ve had a passion for learning my entire life. From the moment I discovered there was something called ‘school’, I’ve wanted to go.

Barely four years old, I had a glimpse of a classroom. I knew right then and there. I wanted to sit in front of a blackboard and learn. I wanted to listen to each and every word. I wanted to look at books. I wanted to ask curious questions. I wanted to listen, look, ask. I wanted to absorb.

I still do.

I had an early start to knowing what I want. 

I want to go to school, Baba.

Aywa ya habibti. You will go to school, my love. When you are old enough to go to school, I will take you. 

I am old enough, Baba! I want to go to school!  

Aywa ya habibti. 

I hear the warmth, the patience in my father’s voice.  

I persist, speaking with conviction. 

I want to go to school!! Now!!!  

I know you want to go to school. Soon, my sweetheart. You’ll go to school to your heart’s content, ya albi. 

I feel heard. He knows what I want! My eyes bright, gaze curious. I look up and speak with a calmer voice.

But why, Baba? Why not now?

Why not now, ya habibti?

He looks at me with deep affection and speaks gently and firmly. 

Ok, I will take you to school, only for a visit. 

A feeling of joy washes over me from head to toe. My smile is wide, bright. My spirit fills with gratitude.  

Thank you, Baba!  

I skip to the kitchen. I pull out a metallic red lunch box and run back to the living room where our conversation began. I’m ready to go.

As a four-year-old, I was expressive, curious and determined. Deeply engrained character traits. I was held with love and affection for all my repeated requests. A minority everywhere I go, my chosen playground was the classroom, books and learning. Dolls, toys and swings were not even in my mind space. I enjoyed playing, and mostly what I wanted and dreamt about, was school. I knew deep within that learning was a feeling of coming home – feeling fully alive, liberated and nourished.

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It’s the weekend. The streets are quiet. I gaze out the car window, eyes glued to catch sight of the school, senses brimming with excitement. We reach the school grounds, a long single-story building. I hear the gravel crunch as we park. I can hardly wait. As soon as I’m able, I run to the building. My red metallic lunch box is clutched close, swinging by my side as I reach the school entrance. We walk through the front hallway and eventually are taken into a classroom. I stand elated.  

I see desks, a blackboard and books, loose-leaf paper and pencils scattered across a rectangular wooden table. I walk silently towards the front row and slip into the chair, attached to a small desk. Staring up at the blackboard, my thoughts are a jumble of excitement and anticipation. I am quiet, listening and absorbing being in a classroom. 

I refuse to leave. The school administrator and my parents indulge me, giving me time to just be at school. It’s what I want.

My first day at school was an enduring and memorable experience, indelibly etched in my memory. I carried this memory with me through my adolescent, youth and adult years. A thirst for learning emerged early to be central to the mosaic of my life – central to leading in a global mosaic.

Learning gives my spirit flight, the force of which is a strong wind that carries me to adventures across the globe. As my career blossomed and life choices took me to live and work as an expat, opportunities to travel to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East came my way. My early start to learning was already deeply rooted. Learning for me is more than strictly acquiring knowledge. Learning is about listening, observing, asking curious questions and connecting thoughts, ideas and patterns. I brought conviction to challenge assumptions, to making observations and to sharing my curiosities and my discoveries.

As Phil Collins said: “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.” With each new experience, I become adept at learning, teaching and eventually coaching. The passion for learning served me well in various parts of my life, as a young and maturing student, active in school and extra-curricular activities; as a marketing intern, manager, leader and parent. Fostering a learning mindset as a leader evolved to be the greatest gift and asset in working and living globally.

It’s the fall of 1997. I am meeting my client for the second time since starting a new job as an Account Manager for a local advertising agency in Egypt. I feel self-assured, and I remain quiet. I am in listening-learning mode. I want to know more about my client and their brands. I want to listen, observe, ask and connect thoughts, ideas and patterns. It’s now a habit. I’ve grown accustomed to first focus on learning about people, events and things and particularly to forging new relationships. I absorb.  

The meeting room fills with client and agency representatives. There’s a flurry of activity as the overhead projector is set up for a slide presentation, stacks of transparencies in a folder on the side. We are receiving a new project brief.  

As often happens in this setting, there’s a mix of languages – Arabic and English. As my manager enters, an expat from South Asia, the conversations gradually switch to primarily English. I feel inner relief that my concentration on the conversation focuses less on the effort of translating, more on processing what I see and hear. Although ethnically I’m from Egypt, my upbringing was in Ethiopia/Eritrea and Canada, and my language of comfort, English.

I remain quiet, increasingly feeling self-conscious of my quiet state. I am an emerging leader. Deep down inside, I feel self-assured that listening mode is best, and I feel the urge to make an impression, to take a lead. Yet, is that what I really want, I wonder? I am mindful that learning and leading is what I want. And so I listen. I remain quiet. 

There are moments when the real me is in shadow, hidden. I feel the fear of failure, of missing an opportunity to lead. Yet, what I truly want is to learn, contribute and influence. I slip the most in lacking trust in myself by rushing to speak. Shaking it off, I remind myself that I have earned the trust of colleagues, mentors and clients.

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In the pendulum swing between listening and wanting to speak, I gather information. I listen for what’s being said, not being said. I listen within. I make connections and notice patterns. I focus on learning: listening, observing and making connections to thoughts, ideas and patterns. It is then that I speak up. I show up, strong and influential, insightful and clear. It is in those moments that people stop, listen and respond as our conversations pulse with resonance. I lead.

The global leader within me that breathes with energy is the one that has something to say with insight, conviction and influence rather than simply making an impression. The most challenging is releasing my knowledge, insights and questions to the world with non-attachment, intention and self-trust.

John F. Kennedy said: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

Over time and as a global leader, I’ve had practice in blending learning and leading from various leader lenses: in the spotlight, on the stage, behind the scenes and with a global view. Each lens has a distinct impact and influence, and all four are needed to leading in a global mosaic.

I have learned that shifting my perspective across these four leader lenses allows for dexterity and shared influence. A leader in the spotlight takes charge and leads a vision while guiding others towards a clear direction. A leader on the stage shifts from directing to collaborating, co-creating and empowering shared leadership. A leader behind the scenes is a selfless leader who takes a backseat, giving others the spotlight while championing them on. And, a leader with a global view exemplifies objectivity and a broadened perspective. A global leader’s journey is full of possibilities and perspectives, each lens a piece of the bigger mosaic.

My leader journey is a learning journey. It began with an early start, continuing to surprise, delighting me with fresh new ways to learning and seeing the world. And so I live to learn: to listen, observe, connect, and lead – living the only way I know how, one mosaic piece at a time.

[Image © Rasstock, under license from Stutterstcok]

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