3 Leadership Attributes Revealed Through Serving Others

Leadership lessons from serving your community

The following is a guest piece by Chi-Dooh Li.

In the early 1980s, I was gripped by the idea that land ownership was the key to breaking the cycle of rural poverty in Central America, where I had lived for three years as a young boy. Today, this idea has flourished into a wonderful organization named Agros International which is helping landless communities in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico achieve land ownership.

The organization has established 42 villages in those countries and has touched thousands of lives.

I have spent the last 30 years working with the poor and would love to share three of the biggest leadership principles that I have learned from the experience with you.

1. Open yourself to unconventional thinking
If you expect to be a leader you have to break out of the tendency to follow the crowd, which is very strong in our culture. If you think like everyone else, there is will be no one left to lead. If you want to be a leader you have to embrace unconventional thinking.

Conventional thinking would not have permitted me to begin Agros. It would have told me that land reform is done by governments, not through private initiative. It would have said that you can’t change things that have been institutionally enforced for over 400 years. You can’t change global poverty; that kind of work is reserved for USAID and international organizations.

Conventional thinking would have said it was too dangerous to work in Guatemala in the middle of a 36-year civil war and we should wait for peace to come before beginning our work.

Conventional means produce conventional results. If all you want is to be another company or another non-profit, follow the crowd. Do what everyone else is doing. If you want to be a leader in your industry you need to be on the cutting edge of innovation. You have to take risks that others aren’t willing to. You need to find out what the right direction is for you, even if that means bumping your head into a few walls and trees and other obstacles in your chosen path.

2. Demonstrate integrity through your actions and words
Being a person of integrity is an essential attribute of leadership. Having a moral compass helps you become a person of integrity. When my children were younger I used to backpack with them in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness region in Washington State.

Sometimes we went off trail because we wanted to go to isolated high mountain lakes where people seldom went. If you didn’t have a magnetic compass when you went into those wilderness regions, chances are you would get lost in those thickly wooded areas.

A moral compass is essential in the life of a leader. That moral compass helps you stay on a course of integrity in your everyday life, your decisions, your work, and your relationships. Your yes has to be a yes and your no has to be a no. Your word has to be your bond. People have a right to be able to trust you. If you breach that trust you are finished as a leader. As leaders we must find “true north” in our lives and live by it.

In 1977 I co-founded a law firm in Seattle named Ellis, Li, and McKinstry where I still work today. I tell the young lawyers in our firm that there is a line that divides right and wrong. I tell them that they have to stay on the right side and are not to even come close to the line.

Once you are close to that line it is easy to step on it or cross over into doing wrong. Every time you cross the line, it becomes easier to cross that line again the next time, and go a little further. This is true of your personal life as well. When you are a leader your personal life is no longer your own business. As a leader you must have what a friend of mine once called an “integrity reflex”, a commitment to doing what is right.

3. Have an undying belief that you can make a difference
You must believe that one person can make a difference; that you can make a difference. This comes from discipline in your everyday life. It comes from being a giver and not a taker. It comes from serving and not looking to be served. It requires an extraordinary amount of patience.

Your need to earn a living: that is a good thing that will not get in the way of you making a difference. You might encounter failure along the way; that’s good too. To experience failure is good. You may have to suffer. That sounds bad, but it is good too. People fail, they suffer, and they have all sorts of problems. A leader who cannot relate to people’s failures, sufferings, problems, is not going to be an effective leader.

You must value patience and perseverance. Don’t try to fast-forward your life. Your greatest enemy is yourself when you lose patience with yourself. As the burdens of your life bear down on you, you may start losing the ability to dream about making a difference. Dreaming is a huge part of knowing you can make a difference.

In his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, T.E. Lawrence writes:

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

A few years ago I heard Noemí López, one of our Agros villagers in El Salvador, say something very similar: “I used to dream in my sleep, with eyes closed. Now I dream with my eyes open. It’s much better to dream with your eyes open because you can do something about making those dreams come true.”

Don’t lose your ability to dream, and dream with your eyes open.

Chi-Dooh Li is a partner at the Seattle law firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry and founder of Agros International, an organization that has received recognition from the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank for combating the root causes of poverty. His book “Buy This Land” describes his experiences helping landless communities in Central America gain great autonomy over the land and their lives.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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