Leadership in unfamiliar territory
By ANTHONY LAM
Even though it feels like ages since, it was only a year ago when I confidently walked into a conference room for a job interview that would, unbeknown to me, impact the rest of my career.
The position was a Klang Valley office-based role with a reputable international Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO) that I was hoping would afford me the opportunity to involve myself in some form of advocacy work. It seemed the sort of position that suited my passion, my conscience, as well as my educational background in both humanities and social sciences.
After greetings were exchanged, one of the two interviewers informed me that they would be interviewing me for another position, one that needed to be filled more urgently.
The proposal was that I be sent to Kelantan to work with orang asli communities that were severely affected by the floods of December 2014. I would be required to relocate to an unfamiliar, remote location to work with communities that may be culturally and linguistically strange to me.
It was not an offer I anticipated, therefore it was unsurprisingly difficult for me to accept immediately. Yet, I believe the twists-and-turns in our lives happen for a reason.
Personally, I believe that God has a way of changing our plans and redirecting us to paths He may feel suit us best. We just have to take the first step with faith.
Stepping out of my comfort zone
As part of the organisation’s second phase of response to the devastation of Bah Kuning, I was charged to lead a team of field staff to carry out post-disaster rehabilitation projects in several sectors, namely WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), DRR (Disaster Risk Reduction), and agriculture. Sustainability was always a vital aspect in our operations. Therefore, the projects did not consist merely of physical structures such as water catchments, wells and emergency food storages, but also educational programmes for the communities.
My previous work experiences were mostly in book publishing, so I knew that the toughest part of this role was that I did not have extensive experience within these fields. I had experience doing short-term cross-cultural community work through my church since my early teens, but the tasks at hand seemed much more daunting. There was a lot of pressure because of the amount of responsibilities—first to the communities that I would serve; secondly to the donors who entrusted our organisation with their financial contributions.
The working environment was challenging, to say the least. I had to swiftly learn to operate a 4×4 vehicle in treacherous conditions. Some villages and schools were four hours, or more, deep in the jungle. Consequently, there were many close calls as the tyres slid on muddy slopes whenever it rained.
There were many aspects of my work that were unfamiliar and required me to amass technical knowledge concerning construction, agriculture, irrigation, and water treatment. While I was fortunate to have technical consultants to refer to from time-to-time for certain projects, as a leader, I had to be well-versed in these areas and be able to be quick on my feet.
I had to overcome the initial culture shock and understand the community’s perspective. I often find that people have preconceived notions about orang asli communities, jumping to conclusions prematurely, during their interactions with the indigenous peoples. It was important for me to not see the communities and their struggles through the eyes of a city boy raised in an upper-middle class family. I learnt that, only when a deep sense of empathy is infused with the organisation’s community development approaches, is it possible for the programme or project to be sustainable.
1. Leading by following
As a youth, I was actively involved with community work through church groups. It was during those days that I was reminded that in order to truly lead, I must first understand how to follow.
It was difficult being in the field and receiving directions from my office-based superiors sometimes.
Nevertheless, I had to understand that the organisational structure is there for a reason—to ensure each part is delegated and members play their role to the best of their ability. While we may question the structure, we should acknowledge that it helps, and we should respectfully make the most of the system.
Communicating with my leaders tactfully was vital to having productive discussions. At times, the office base would recommend a particular course of action within a programme, however, being in the field and spending time with the villagers daily afforded us contrasting perspectives from those of our superiors.
On my part, there would be an initial tendency to think my leaders have no idea what they are saying because they do not work and live among the communities. Therefore, they lack relevant contextual knowledge for making crucial decisions. After all, I’m the one in the jungle, spending time with these villagers—learning about their needs and potential hurdles that might affect project feasibility.
However, I have found that the best outcomes have come from speaking to my leaders, respectfully and humbly, offering my opinions and advice while acknowledging my place within the organisation. While they may struggle to see things from a field staff’s perspective, their contrasting perspectives help us, as a team, to look at issues from several points of view and consider alternative solutions.
One of the rewards of respecting my leaders was the example that it set for those who were following me. Even though I managed to learn these skills and technical knowledge promptly, I still felt I had been abruptly thrown into a leadership position. In such a volatile environment, my weaknesses were exposed for my field team to see. It was in this moment, that I could reinforce the importance of being a humble follower whilst being a strong leader. On many occasions, when there was internal conflict, I could lead by the example I consciously set.
As a leader, it was important for me to strive to be humble and identify my own weaknesses. Had I not done that, I might have failed to realise that I needed to capitalise on the knowledge and skill sets of the amazing individuals that made up the team.
While working with the Temiar communities in remote areas, I often relied on my fellow team members who had more context-specific experience than me. I prepared myself to learn from those under me because I was not as adept in the fields of construction, agriculture, irrigation, and water treatment.
When I believed I lacked the capacity to execute a particular task, it was important that my team knew I was prepared to make way for them to take the lead. It was pivotal to take a step back and allow them to develop as leaders, but also reinforce that I trusted them and believed in their talents.
The team was able to build off-grid water systems for ten Temiar communities, initiate agriculture projects for three communities, and construct emergency food supply storehouses for twelve communities in the interiors of Kelantan last year. We also facilitated workshops and discussions on health, hygiene, and disaster preparedness among other issues, with the communities and their leaders.
While many of my peers may have much praise for my accomplishments as the leader of the field team, it was most definitely a joint effort by a large team of individuals who understood that each of them had two pivotal roles to play—first a follower, then a leader.