A Weekend with Giants on an Island State

In the first few days of 2019, I was invited as part of a group of 21 leaders to help design the ‘Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific’ programme. This programme aims to bring together 200 emerging leaders from across Asia-Pacific to explore new ways to take on the biggest challenges in their communities, and the 21 of us spent 3 days together as the first cohort envisioning our future for the world and what emerging leaders would need to make that future happen.

Coming off more than 13 years of facilitation and L&D experience in my career, I’ve learnt that the worst thing you can do for your learning is to say: “Been there, done that.” I’ve conducted leadership workshops, design thinking workshops, product design sprints, strategy development offsites, and every experience is a different one. This design workshop in Hawai’i affirmed that belief. We learnt from Bill Coy, Director of the Omidyar Fellows, what it meant to be an adaptive leader and not a mere technical problem solver. We learnt from Stuart Candy, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon and futurist facilitator, a primer on futures thinking and how it affects our role of agency today. We worked with Foundation supporters to consider solutions and synthesise thoughts for the larger ‘Leaders: Asia-Pacific’ programme. It gave me hope — and a great deal of excitement — that when we gather 200 emerging leaders later this year, it will be practical in empowerment, warm in connection, and earth-shaking in inspiration.

It’s taken me a while to consolidate my thoughts and distill the learning that was in every person’s wise words. There was nary a moment when you didn’t feel your mind expanding; your ideas challenged; your view of the world take on another vantage point, and I’ve tried to condense all of this into five points that will hopefully provide some idea of my learning.

Photo by The Obama Foundation

1. What the traditional Polynesian greeting taught me

A common sight of respect amongst the elders who were leading our sessions, and who we had the opportunity to learn from, was their greeting of touching foreheads. Two of them would come together, extremely close, and bow their heads slightly, stretching them forward until their foreheads would meet. And then they would linger there for a few moments.

That greeting had more meaning and symbolism than I had first come to appreciate. The act of coming so close signified a unity of ‘breathing the same air’. As they were soaking in the shared space and mutual respect, they lingered in understanding, setting a precursor to what they would converse about. The second symbol that was astounding to me was one of vulnerability. You see, the ancient Polynesians were warriors and navigators. They would sail treacherous seas in search of new lands, and once they come across those lands, they would fight for their livelihood — and at times fight to defend it. The greeting had two persons literally sticking their necks out, demonstrating a willingness to be vulnerable and trusting the other person, for how easy it would be to whip out a knife and deal a killing blow.

As a leader, this was such a strong metaphor for me. Am I putting myself in a position of mutual respect and shared understanding? Was I being vulnerable enough; trusting enough, in order to make the change I want to with my team? This is a worthwhile reminder for all of us privileged enough to be in a place of leadership.

Photo by The Obama Foundation

2. The antidote to rising nationalism

One of the best parts about the weekend was actually spending time with the Obama Foundation International team. They were warm, welcoming, and so hospitable in making everything so easy and smoothly run. You leave the workshop actually feeling a little bit indebted, and making a promise in your heart to not let the work be in vai