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Barbara Bush: 4 tips for aspiring leaders

January 7, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Barbara Bush

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. This week we ask: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? The following answer is by Barbara Bush, co-founder of Global Health Corps.

At age 26, I unexpectedly launched into a leadership role when I co-founded Global Health Corps (GHC) with five other twenty-something’s. With only a few years of professional experience under our belts, my co-founders and I relied heavily on each other’s complementary strengths and quickly gained the audacity to reach out to anyone willing to provide advice and perspective on our new organization. This included people like anthropologist Paul Farmer, former United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS executive director Peter Piot, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp and countless others. As a leadership program that is building the next generation of global health leaders, we identified the key practices necessary for our fellows, that are introduced and reinforced during their ongoing training. Here are a few of the most critical lessons I believe all new leaders should follow:

Always listen
For anyone starting a new job, regardless of the industry, it’s crucial to listen as much as possible. It’s impossible to know everything and despite what you might think, no one expects you to. This is especially important for people going into leadership roles for the first time, and even more so if you’re entering a new company, culture or country.

At GHC, we discourage our fellows from making any recommendations within the first 90 days of their fellowship. When entering a new work environment or community, I believe it is critical to carefully gauge the context you’re entering. In order to best serve the needs of the organization, you must first understand what issues need to be met and the cultural influences that impact those issues.

Exercise humility
It is important to remember that first and foremost, as leaders, we are in our role to serve others. During team building activities for our GHC fellows, they are constantly reminded that in order to lead effectively, particularly in an increasingly globalized world, they have to take time to understand the perspectives of others. Recognize what you don’t know and seek out the best outlets or people to fill those voids.

Embrace failure
One of my favorite parts of GHC training is when Robert Kaplan, a professor of leadership at Harvard’s Business School, encourages our fellows and staff to reflect on our “failure narratives,” the negative stories we tell ourselves about our own failures. Whether we realize it or not, these failures greatly impact our behavior and interactions with others. Regardless of one’s title, we all experience fear that we’re not good enough, but being aware of this fear helps to clearly analyze your behavior around others and overcome self-doubt.

Be open to self-reflection
One leadership lesson that isn’t stressed enough is that to effectively serve others and make an impact, leaders must engage in self-reflection and self-care. Since our founding, we’ve had the privilege to work with Still Harbor, an organization that provides workshops to help guide our fellows through personal, spiritual and professional reflection. It is important to understand yourself before embarking on social work because as Edward Cardoza, executive director at Still Harbor suggests “if you’re going to work for others and for the world, you’re going to have to work on [yourself] first.”

More than anything, the development of a leader is a life-long process that requires humility, continual reflection and hard work. As an emerging leader myself, I still have a lot to learn and practice. The fellows and alumni at GHC continue to amaze me everyday and always remind me of our ultimate goal: health equity.

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