Article by Janina Knörzer (Laidlaw Scholar 2020, History)
It is a warm summer day. The sun is shining bright. I find myself in front of my laptop in the living room, which will be my “office” for the next few weeks. On the other side of the world in Fiji, it is a hot day that is slowly nearing its end and people are starting to cook dinner. Across the world a number of other students all sit in front of their screens, all of us on the same video call. We have the same mission for our Leadership in Action experience: to get to know more about Fiji, its people, and its culture and to complete a project that will be put into action on the islands, after the LIA is over. The tone for the coming weeks with Think Pacific was set very quickly. Everyone was extremely friendly, open, and genuinely excited. More importantly, despite us having chosen a virtual and remote project, there was an immediate understanding of the international dimensions of the project.
My decision to join Think Pacific was one that I made in light of possible COVID restrictions and because I suspected that it would offer me better opportunities to work on my leadership abilities than the project I had previously intended to work on would have. Before I started the LIA, I had a hard time imagining how exactly I would improve my leadership skills. During my time with Think Pacific, however, I felt as though any progress was happening very organically, and almost unnoticed by myself at first.
Think Pacific assigned everyone to small groups which would each work with a local Fijian organization on a designated project. My team was composed of four people, all from different countries. Immediately, I realized that working on a project which would later be implemented on the other side of the planet, in a team with people, who I only knew through a screen, would be a challenge. Think Pacific assigned team members to take the lead over the project for one week each. But we were left to figure out for ourselves how we would work best in a team and in cooperation with the Fijian organization. My name was put down as “leader” for week one and so I faced the biggest challenge of the project at the very beginning. As the person in charge, I felt an extreme pressure to establish the foundation for the work that was to come. I had to make sure we all became comfortable with each other, I needed to make sure we built up an organizational structure, I needed to get the project going and simultaneously make sure the presentation that was scheduled after the weekend, was taken care of. From the first moment on, the project required a dedication to time management that forced me to overcome what I would usually consider one of my biggest challenges.
It allowed me, however, to improve upon my leadership abilities very early on in the project. Since everyone had their own leadership style, with its benefits and flaws, I was able to apply what I found helpful to mine and avoid aspects that seemed counterproductive. I also learned how leadership tied into other positions in a team that are not formally the “leading” position. While during the first week the output we produced was already great, it was noticeable how each week, we worked together a little better as a team and found it much easier than when we first started.
Looking back at the SMART goals, I now feel much more confident in my understanding of each one and like I have made improvements in all of them. Given that my switch to the Think Pacific programme was rather spontaneous, the outcomes of those few weeks by far exceeded my expectations. I was very happy with my progress as a leader, with how my understanding of flexibility within a team changed. I also enjoyed the international setting of the programme. The tone that Think Pacific established was friendly and supportive while at the same time being clear and precise in communication and expectations, which is something that I hope to implement in future situations myself. I would recommend the LIA with Think Pacific to anyone who wants to improve their cultural fluency and figure out what kind of leader they want to be, all in a very supportive environment.