Ubuntu, Humanity. Humanity, Ubuntu
I recently returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa to deliver a keynote for the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Nigeria Chapter.
Before departing, I followed the usual checklist. Bags packed? Check. Passport, driver’s license, cash and credit cards? Check. Emergency contacts and phone in pocket? Check. Family provided with a copy of itinerary? Check. Computer, electronic equipment peripherals and presentation? Check. Red presentation jacket? Check. Registration with the U.S. Department of State, security and Nigerian culture briefings and immunizations completed? Check. An extra bag full of excitement? Check! Pre-travel expectations and uninformed biases locked and loaded. Check!
After a day long trip that took me through France, I landed in Lagos, Nigeria, a city full of life and activity. I was greeted at the airport by a contingency of ASSE Nigeria Chapter members. Their warm welcome and smiles immediately made me feel at home. It was very apparent the chapter members were on a mission to keep it that way.
Culture shock immediately set in when I saw the flow of traffic and just how many people could actually fit in one vehicle. The frequent sounding of vehicle horns was an obvious indication that I was in a big city.
Some people transported large baskets full of goods perfectly balanced on their heads. The women and men wore amazing head dress in vibrant colors. National pride was in the air. You could see it. You could feel it.
Here, there, people were everywhere. The scene reminded me of a typical Times Square rush on a Monday lunch break: nothing but humanity.
Upon arriving at the hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, the royal treatment continued. ASSE Nigeria Chapter members made sure I had everything I needed and more. Their greetings were graced by a double handed handshake or a handshake with their other hand on my shoulder. A “hello,” then a “how is your family?” followed.
The professional development conference opening was very formal with a moderator and a declaration of distinguished guests; courtesies and actions of respect were abound. Suits, ties and Nigerian traditional formal wear filled the auditorium.
Most early career safety professionals – men and women – had earned several advanced degrees and were looking to obtain several more. Some had traveled to the United States to attain their Board of Certified Professionals Certified Safety Professional (CSP) credential. This was an impressive accomplishment because one Nigerian Naira is approximately equivalent to one half of one American cent. Travel from Nigeria to the U.S. often comes at great expense and family sacrifice.
It is clear that seasoned professionals are admired by the younger generation. This was apparent by the way the elders were approached and addressed by the younger attendees.
Every interaction experienced with the ASSE Nigerian Chapter early career professionals began with a warm handshake, a hello, a smile, a name exchange and a “how is your family” greeting. The respect, courtesy and admiration were unforgettable and overwhelming.
During the keynote delivery, I revealed to the crowd that I am 15 percent Nigerian, a revelation that surprised the crowd.
One thing of note during my presentation was how my questions were answered. They were usually answered by the elders first, then by the early career professionals. That’s because culture runs deep in Nigeria. Family is of upmost importance; courtesy and respect rule above all.
So how does all of this tie back to leadership? What does a trip to Nigeria have to do with personal leadership development and why should you consider a journey outside your comfort zone?
The answer to these questions is the same: leadership growth is accomplished by forging a new path today using the foundation from the lessons learned yesterday. While a trip to a far land may seem exciting but trivial and insignificant, the reality of it all indicates otherwise.
Great leaders challenge and encourage themselves to depart from what they know best, from the norm, and they do so with sustainable frequency.
Diversity of Experience = Diversity of Thought Leadership
My return was filled with a rejuvenated sense of culture, awareness, accomplishment and gratefulness to have met the most amazing people – friends and colleagues. My professional network is now suddenly more diverse and much larger, a key component that facilitates effective leadership.
Most of all, I was reminded that as an elder, it is my responsibility to continue to set an example, to teach via action and to consider this weight on my shoulders as a blessing and a duty to the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) profession.
My pre-travel expectations were far exceeded. What about my uninformed pre-travel biases? Well, those were definitely uninformed… a lesson all by itself.
Thank you to the ASSE and the ASSE Nigeria Chapter for the opportunity to serve and for expanding my leadership toolbox in ways words cannot articulate.
Ubuntu, which means humanity towards others in Nigeria, best summarizes this amazing experience.