Teaching as Learning: The Gift of Intercultural Work

By Rick Stiffney (PhD), Founder/Principal of Integrated Leadership and Consultancy LLC (Former CEO with Mennonite Health Services)

Many months ago, I was asked to develop a proposal for teaching leadership to a group of executive and senior leaders of the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia. Over many years, I have developed many proposals. But this was unique. The request was a surprise. The opportunity was an honor. The challenge was daunting.

The request came from a USAID officer in Ethiopia – Keith Hummel. Keith and I became friends years ago when he was serving as CEO of Frederick Living Retirement Community in Pennsylvania. After several years of mission agency assignments in Africa, he began work with USAID in Ethiopia. In that capacity he had worked closely with an NGO with whom USAID had many contracts. USAID was ramping up its work in Ethiopia, optimistic about the potential impact of the newly elected Prime Minister. USAID and several global foundations have invested millions over many years in technology, strategy, and supply chain management. But little, if any, had been invested in leadership development.

As I contemplated the proposal, I realized I was in over my head. I know leadership theory. I have tried to practice it. I have taught it. I have coached and mentored many. That wasn’t the problem. I didn’t know culture.

I quickly recruited a friend and colleague—Lee Schmucker, MBA. Lee has taught leadership in several African nations. She and I have co-facilitated numerous leadership development engagements for over twenty years. I knew we could work together and develop a highly adaptive approach that might have a chance of becoming culturally competent over time.

Lee and I decided that before writing a proposal we should make an initial trip to Addis Ababa to meet colleagues. We needed to listen and develop some sense of what might fit their context. We made this trip, at our expense, in the Spring of 2018 to learn and to assess whether we had the capacity to do the project. We met with the key leadership of the Health Ministry agency and the NGO. They spoke clearly and directly to us about their perceptions of their leadership needs. We discussed various approaches, learning theories, time frames, and likely costs. What was most important is that we began to develop a relationship of mutual respect and confidence.

Lee and I developed a proposal. After months of process with the NGO and USAID, the proposal was funded. We rolled out a 9-month leadership formation program for nearly 50 of the key leadership in the Pharmaceutical Supply Agency of Health Ministry. The program included four 3-day learning sessions. Each participant developed personal leadership projects. Each session included high levels of interaction in small groups, case studies, role plays, and relentless application of principle to day to day challenges they face in their work.

We concluded our fourth 3-day learning session in early June of this year. One highlight of this final 3-day session was being honored with gifts of traditional garb and a surprise dinner party and dancing – all African style. It was such fun. We were among friends.

On our final morning, participants had an opportunity to present to their table groups the impact of this program; what they had learned and how they had already been applying it in their personal lives and leadership work. We organized a formal graduation ceremony where each participant received a certificate and had an opportunity to share about their experience in the program and hopes for how they would be remembered when they retire. One participant had prepared an 8-minute video of digital pictures compiled during the program. This added a high-impact emotional punch to the graduation celebration.

Lee and I were profoundly moved by the testimonies of the program’s impact on professional and personal lives. Clearly these sessions together deepened the trust and relationships between these co-workers.

Many have observed that often those who serve and teach in cross-cultural contexts learn or gain more than those being taught. Indeed, this truism applies to us.

We learned that professional colleagues who did not know us were ready to engage, listen, and trust. This was no small step on their part. It’s quite a challenge to be teaching as white Americans with an all African group given the posture and style of leadership modeled by the current President of the United States. Our colleagues were eager to interact with their co-workers with whom some had had little experience. Their enthusiasm in just being together was so great that we had quite a challenge bringing some order to these energetic gatherings. The group agreed to develop a set of ground rules. Once established, they policed their own behavior – including monetary fines for violations of the ground rules! The fines helped to fund the evening parties!

Our colleague learned to speak more directly to each other – discussing challenges they were addressing, considering ways to adapt their styles, negotiating ground rules for their table group work. They were quick to take fundamental principles in leadership and team building, filter out what was irrelevant, and grab hold of what makes sense in their context. 

Most importantly, our colleagues became friends. By the third 3-day session, we were welcomed to the evening small group and large group parties. Together we became more than just professional colleagues, but became friends with personal lives, families, frustrations, hopes, and dreams. Our fourth session together only deepened these relationships.

Coming to the end is so bitter-sweet. It is so hard “ending”, yet we end with such profound thanks. A wise old man once observed that we write the script of our life one day, one hour, one minute, and one moment at a time. Perhaps we can take that sense of thanksgiving into our next days. I hope so.