Sunday, October 11, 2009

Leading into leadership – the MIT years

I've been meaning to write this entry for about a month. After the facebook campaign for presidency got its 233rd member, I decided it was time. If you didn't know, 233 is Ghana's country code (phone). It's of major significance to me. I've been honoured to see people speak highly of my leadership skills, etc and it's been making me wonder if I am up for such things. This is the 4th in my leading to leadership series, if you missed earlier entries, here they are: Tech/KNUST Primary & JSS (pre-high school), Presec (high school), and Syracuse (pre-college). In this entry, I will talk about the MIghTy years. A dream to attend the best engineering school had come alive. A prayer to be in a world-class institution had been answered. How did I deal with leading? Let's find out.

Before we get into the stories surrounding 77 Massachusetts Avenue, we must understand how we got there. One joyous day in March 2002, I received a phone call. It was from MIT. I had been admitted. I told the dude on the other line to hold on, left the phone, jumped and shouted for 10 seconds to the bewilderment of my father and his visitor as I celebrated maybe the best thing that could have happened to me yet. Such memories serve as personal encouragement in times when I am struggling. That's why I decided to tell y'all anyway. I knew of Arthur Musah at MIT, and surely I was going to get to know the other Ghanaian students there as well. I attended Campus Preview Weekend where I made some friends with whom I am in touch till today. I quickly discovered I would want to stay in a dorm with no dining halls but with kitchens, since the 'chiselled' miser in me was not gonna spend plenty to buy food and would rather eat the rice and stew he'd been fed all his life. I also discovered my friends would be those who most identified with me culturally - Ghanaians Africans.

As a freshman in college, you have more chances to lead than being a 'nino'/1st year student in a Ghanaian secondary school. You could start your own organization sef. Not exactly the 'Jollof lovers' group types on Facebook, but something like 'Bridging the Digital Divide by sending unwanted MIT lab computers to primary schools in Ghana'. I was in a liberal school, but I don't do PC. I do Linux. Yes, our clusters had computers with Linux installed, not Windows, Doors DOS or Macs. Geeky eh? I would have none of that. So, I had to learn the ropes, joined a couple of organizations; the campus newspaper - Tech, EASE, AITI, the African Students Association, NSBE, and a campus ministry. I didn't survive two weeks at the newspaper (I give up sometimes). Sure, I had wanted to continue my Presec editorial board exploits but the work I had to do to write one story made me think twice. I give up sometimes. Maybe leaders do. Maybe not.

For one reason or the other, my 'shyness' shed itself when I was in Boston and I became a 'social animal'. I wanted to go to every African-themed event. Far or wide. Party or presentation. Ghanaian or 'can't you see you are the only Ghanaian over here, what brought you here' event. I can't even tell you why I was doing this. Maybe making up for lost time perhaps. Quickly, I was the one who knew plenty people and the default assemblyman. :-) Hence, the favorite position for me to take was Recruiting co-ordinator. Go use your charm, friendship links, influence, juju, tallness, %#!@%$%# to get us some members. Some of these may be elements of leadership actually. But then again, it's a position someone other than the leader holds. I can't confirm I performed my duties excellently but it became my default position in EASE and I never really took any steps up. I tried to start sister EASE organizations in other US colleges. Yes, there's still only one, that dream whispered and got shut up eventually. I tried but couldn't use my networks to do jack. At least not as much as I jacked up the aspirations to be.

I had also joined AITI, which ended up giving me one of the best times of my life - sending me with a group of MIT students to Ghana to teach university students JAVA programming and entrepreneurship. I ended up spending the whole 2004 summer in Ghana, on AITI business, planting seeds for what is today, working on GhanaThink (more on this in another entry), amongst other things. Being the only Ghanaian in the group, I was handed some leadership responsibility - logistics. I did good, related well to our students and forged a bond that still exists between our MIT group and our students. Teaching was so empowering, made me feel I was contributing to my country. That period also made me very confident in the ability of Ghanaian youth and students, part of which drives me till today. It was during a time, many Ghanaians were not too giddy about Ghana's future, but experiencing the ingenuity and talent of the Ghanaian youth I communed with for weeks gave a great outlook. It made me believe we can do it, long before Barack Obama delivered 'tough love' to Africans in Ghana earlier this July. After that Ghana trip, I hanged around AITI for a while, but never took up any serious positions. Is that what Obama would have done? Of course, I supported it in many ways, especially the one-way I know best - recruiting and marketing. Dawuro bɔ. You have an awesome project with an African slice? Count on the MIghTy African. Promoting African excellence everywhere.

The African Students Association was the ish though if you asked me. Our semi-formal was grand and the party that followed was unmatched in terms of African spirit. Right from the get-go, I was getting involved, acting, performing poems, helping out, etc. There were times, we'd have the semi-formal and I'd be the sole performer from our group. Of course, that's not leadership, it's called hogging the spotlight. Just kidding, it's called wanting to share talents. Mxm. The president of the association was normally a junior. When I was a junior, I was nominated to run for the highest office in the land ASA but I backed out. By this time, I had decided, I was at my best following and not leading. In fact, I never had a single position in the ASA in my 4 years. The one-time I run for anything, it was for sports chair and I lost. Pɔtɔɔɔ. You think I didn't advise myself? I chickened out but to be truthful, I just didn't think I was cut for such. I enjoyed being a common floor member who contributed wherever and whenever he could and put his all into fulfilling the goals of the organization. And that I did.

I was a common-floor member on the religious scene in Presec but at 'don't mention God' MIT, I was the spirito/pastor/chrife/ person. And here, I was, a million times less religious than I was in Presec, but in MIT, I was at the forefront of a campus ministry. When I somehow became president because I was a senior, I was the face. Victory Campus Ministries. Impact. Tall task. I could recruit some new members, but not much. I just don't remember doing a great job in that position. That's the way the cookie crumbled. Being in VCM was great because the church I attended was very diverse and youthful. I met a good number of my good non-African friends through this ministry. God is good. When it comes to matters of Christ, differences are submerged in our diversity. I know this, because the same things didn't work too well for me in my classes when I had to join teams to do projects. I was almost never a group leader and just didn't seem to be a great member otherwise. Maybe they didn't know how to use me or understand me, but would we blame them? No. I plead the Akonth (fifth) here.

So as we can see, I didn't improve my leadership skills in four defining years of my life. Sure, there are things we can point to; the community service through EASE & AITI, the impression I made on the people I met, the initiative I took to do various things, the announcing of excellence that defined me, the I-love-all-things-Ghana stand I took, the lets-support-Africa-to-be-better campaign I waged, amongst others. Someone will call these elements of leadership which offers some juice to the subject. These memoirs are for me to judge and for you to learn. It may look like I'm putting my business out there, but I believe it serves as a case-study for us all. I was focused on a bunch of non-MIT initiatives while I was there so I couldn't have taken too much responsibility on campus. You don't want to know what all these initiatives are, but I could have leveraged MIT resources for them. I didn't do much there. I didn't form any groups either though I had a few ideas. Didn't send any computers to a village school in Ghana either. Tscheeew. Disappearing into some hole somewhere.

But on our turns backward, we must face forward with even greater focus. The tree branches into various ideas, we can hop onto another one if one is getting cut. I talked about the facebook presidency campaign eh? That's a whole other blog entry. Subconsciously, my MIT experience shaped my capability to lead and offered lessons and decision-making. I did improve my time management skills, maybe not my priorities though I found out what was important to me - doing the little things to support my cultural home, and great multi-tasking. There were the decisions I didn't make, and those that I made to not be the decision-maker. I managed to not lead into leadership as much as I could, but still got the odd leadership thrust and blessing. Do we understand leadership like we should? Or is it just me? We'll see in the next entry.
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