The Anatomy of ‘Leadership Development’ for Young Reformers
February 1, 2017
By the time Sushil Adhikari was 11 years old, an inherited eye disease had caused him to lose his sight completely. Growing up in Nepal, he faced daily obstacles in an environment severely lacking in accessibility infrastructure, social services, and general awareness of challenges for persons with disabilities. At several turns in his pursuit of an education and career, Sushil had to cope with acts of discrimination, including beliefs that his affliction was a “curse” brought on by his own wrongdoings.
Now at 25, Sushil has come a long way. While earning a master’s degree at Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan University, he became a specialist in computer applications, and now spends much of his time converting digital resources for better accessibility, and sharing his own tech knowledge to educate and empower others with disabilities. He co-founded his own organization, Bright Star Society, committing himself to bridging the gaps between people with and without disabilities. From this position, he blogs and broadcasts his voice on the radio to campaign for the rights of disabled and minority youth, while rising to the additional challenge of assisting those newly disabled from the earthquakes that struck Nepal in 2015.
In 2016, Sushil was selected as one of 12 distinguished “emerging leaders” from Asia to participate in The Asia Foundation Development Fellows Program, which provides highly qualified, young professionals from Asia with an unparalleled opportunity to strengthen their leadership skills and gain in-depth knowledge of Asia’s critical development challenges. [Stay tuned for the announcement shortly of the new 2017 fellows, and read more about the program here.]
When it comes to the concept of “leadership,” Sushil’s story exemplifies some of the evolving trends in international development, namely the growing investments made in emerging leaders who fall outside the confines of conventional leadership. These “new leaders” are deeply rooted in local realities, have a clear stake in their community’s economic and social progress, and hold the capacity to innovate new challenges to the status quo.
Over 60 percent of the world’s youth (750 million aged 15-24) lives in Asia, according to the United Nations. In addition, youth unemployment and underemployment is a major concern worldwide, and the International Labor Organization reports that youth unemployment rates are five times higher than those of adults in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region more broadly. Given these trends, the need for Asia’s young reformers to step up and lead the region has become more pressing.
In the last decades, dozens of academic programs have sprung up to study leadership, and initiatives like The Asia Foundation Development Fellows program help to cultivate young reformers like Sushil. As the 2016 fellowship year officially concludes, here’s a look back at elements of the program that define this new leadership development strategy.
Leadership as individual skills for organizational management. From April 10-16, 2016, the 12 fellows participated in a week-long Leadership Development Workshop in Korea, a classroom-based learning module in partnership with the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management. Derived from teachings in the field of organizational behavior and management, the coursework highlighted individual skills such as strategic thinking, conflict management and negotiation, and effective communication to facilitate the fellows’ success as organizational team leaders.
Leadership defined by civil society in action. From Seoul, the fellows traveled to Mongolia for a workshop on Asian development, turning their focus toward the contextual elements of development. Here, Mongolian governance, economy, culture, and history served as a rich case study for the fellows to explore contemporary challenges in development, including through the perspectives of other young leaders in Mongolian civil society.
Cases largely revolved around the urban governance challenges posed by the sprawling informal ger districts on the periphery of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. There, the fellows delved into issues involving poor delivery of urban services and environmental degradation, and, in turn, learned about the potential solutions offered by young local leaders.
Leadership by innovation, technology, and design. In September, a capstone two-week Leadership Dialogue and Exchange program brought the 2016 fellows to San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C., to explore the organizational landscape of global development and social impact.
San Francisco and Silicon Valley presented a unique angle on leadership, assigning deeper importance to the value of ideas, rather than the influence of institutions. Many of the themes focused on entrepreneurship, with opportunities to learn about the various pools of funding and support available for change-makers around the world. This included a discussion on startup economies and venture capital funding with Bill Draper of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which seeks out and supports high-impact social enterprises with $300,000 of unrestricted capital over three years.
Leadership from the perspective of established global institutions. In Washington, D.C., The Asia Foundation connected the fellows with important government agencies such as the U.S. State Department East Asian and Pacific Affairs Office of Public Diplomacy and USAID’s Global Development Lab. Programs such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) demonstrate how governments can play a significant role in promoting leadership among youth, especially as it relates to their role in strengthening regional ties.
A visit with the World Bank’s Collaborative Leadership for Development program demonstrated a growing number of impact strategies emphasizing collaborative and coalition-building elements of leadership. Instead of concentrating on singular actors, development efforts should focus on the spaces between multiple actors and stakeholders to improve systems, align interests, and consolidate influence to solve critical problems.
Strengthening bonds with other leaders, and each other. The program is designed to offer the fellows the chance to forge relationships with like-minded professionals to help them gain a wider perspective on the issues and challenges they face as leaders, and to provide the opportunity for collaboration in the future. For example, through the program’s mentoring component, fellows could forge deeper professional bonds with experienced and senior Asia Foundation staff.
However, the core strength of the program lies in cultivating powerful and enduring bonds among the fellows themselves. During the fellowship’s final stages, Sushil remarked, “One of the highlights that I appreciate most about the program is that I never felt socially disconnected.”
Davey Kim is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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