The best leaders learn as much as they can about those who are different than they are. The more we experience different countries, cultures, languages, religions, and people, the broader our world view becomes and the less narrow-minded our thinking is. The most fulfilling way to broaden our horizons is through international travel—which feels like oxygen for my soul.
But international travel is expensive, so when it's prohibitive, leaders need look no further than their own community to experience something new. Perhaps it's an ethnic restaurant, or a service at a church outside your faith, or a visit to an area where the majority of people speak a different language.
When you are intentional about experiences outside your own comfort zone, you can leave behind the preconceived notions and barriers you may have built up over time. Understanding and becoming more open to diversity can only strengthen your ability to lead others.
Finding Similarities Over Differences
A visit to Mumbai, India, provided an opportunity to experience and explore another culture.
On a visit to Mumbai, India, to speak at an educator's conference, I was gazing out my 20th floor hotel window. To my left was the sea and to my right was the lively city of Mumbai. Even from the 20th floor, I could hear the hum of the city. Vehicles darted in and out of traffic while people walked along the side of the streets, all with a purpose I knew nothing about.
As I gazed down at the busy city life, my eye caught a group of Indian children playing in an open outdoor area. By their uniforms, I knew they were students. It was obviously an unstructured time of day, perhaps the change from morning school to afternoon school or perhaps simply a recess break.
I was overjoyed to watch them at play, and to my delight, all the way from my window, I saw how similar they were to other groups of children I have observed in my travels to Africa, Europe, South America, Canada, China, Italy, and the United Kingdom. I could not hear what they were talking about and I had no idea about their ages or grades or backgrounds. All I had was a visual of their play from above.
AMLE talks with author Nikki Woodson Talk about Middle Level Leadership
The description of what I saw could have been a description of a schoolyard in many parts of the world. I saw smiles, laughter, and harmless teasing as students tagged each other and ran away.
I saw a child put her hand on another's shoulder in what looked like a gesture of support. I watched a small group of boys engaged in an intense conversation about something that was so passionate for them that they used large hand gestures to explain it to each other.
Imagine how wonderful our world could be if we embraced our similarities first and respected any differences second? How would your leadership change if you focused on ways you and your staff, parents, and students are similar rather than how you are different?
Leadership as an Unexpected Journey
International travel provides opportunities to find commonalities among cultures.
During a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, I took an Arabian desert safari to get away from the opulence of the city and see the organic desert. An SUV carried me and my companions about 45 minutes away from the city to the middle of the desert.
Our driver stopped at the most amazing sand dunes I had ever seen. While we waited in the vehicle, listening to Middle Eastern music, the driver hopped out and let some air out of the tires. When he got back in, he changed the radio to classical music and said with a smile on his face, "Ok, time to fasten your seatbelts."
Within seconds, we were barreling over the sand dunes at tremendous speeds, sliding up and down. After the first few moments of shock, squeals and shrieks broke out. We were scared, delighted, entertained. We all had an amazing experience simply by "fastening our seatbelts."
Four-wheeling in the United Arab Emirates became a metaphor for leadership.
This Arabian desert safari experience is a colorful illustration of our leadership life. Sometimes circumstances tell us to just "fasten our seatbelt" but we go against that advice, fight it, ask too many questions. We must know what is going to happen next or we won't enjoy it. Sometimes, we just need to fasten our seatbelts and go where the journey takes us, because, despite our best planning and intentions, leadership can be like an unexpected and unplanned ride.
Listen carefully to what your leadership life is telling you, and when the time comes, sit back, relax, fasten your seatbelt, and go on the amazing leadership journey life has in store!
Nikki Woodson is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township
in Indianapolis, Indiana. She also serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate and is a co-founder of Change Makers International, which focuses on global growth and contribution.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2016.