Sunday, March 27, 2011

Crossing the Street

During a recent presentation to our senior management team I was reminded of the power of stories. The topic was IT Strategy and our internal Digital Divide among our national societies. A recent study had determined about 40% of countries in the RCRC Movement were without adequate IT to fully participate as members of the Federation or within their countries. This required new ways of thinking if we were to address this problem in the near-term.

The story I told was about crossing a busy street in Cairo. When we think about strategy, a natural tendency is to think about being in front, ahead of the pack, encouraging others to follow. A friend who teaches part-time at a prestigious law school says you need to keep two steps ahead of the students, no more and no less. And it's this memory of the teachers and coaches in our life that sets our early benchmark for leading. But it may not be the image that serves us best.

Last summer I traveled to Cairo to be a judge in the Imagine Cup student competition. While we were there, we made plans to meet with a colleague who offered to show us his home country, the "real" Egypt he said. Farouk was one of our long-term Field Office Regional Tech's. He reported up through my US headquarters IT group.

As is the custom of his country, Farouk extended a hospitality that is rare in my part of the world. He took us on a tour of the old city in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum, and we traveled to Alexandria. He made all the arrangements and would take no more than our thanks in return. It was humbling.

The traffic in Cairo is, by western standards, insane. There are few traffic lights in the city, and no one pays any attention to them. The painted lines on the street and highways are at best guidelines; if four cars can fit in three lanes, they do. One evening in Cairo we parked near the edge of the old city and walked to dinner. At the first main street, we experienced the drivers of Egypt, up close and personal. How were we ever going to cross this street? My New York instincts were to look for a gap in the traffic, and run for it. But there were no gaps.

Though I was the boss, Farouk took charge. "Hold my hand," he said, "follow my lead, and don't look!" It was a strange experience, a throw-back to early childhood, grabbing Dad's hand before crossing the street; depending on him to get us safely across. "Go now," he said, taking five steps forward and stopping, then five more. Cars were swerving around us like a river around some rocks. "Hold on," he admonished, "do what I say; now go." In a dance I did not understand, he guided us across the sea of chaos, to the other side.

When we caught our breath, and heart rates slowed down, I asked him how he got us across. In New York, we would have been killed. But these were Cairo rules. "When you step out," he said, "the drivers must take responsibility not to hit you." "...but you need to know when to step out," he added.

This story was a lesson I'll never forget, precisely because I needed to forget. I had to put aside my experience and preconceived notions of how to cross a busy street, and trust someone else to guide me through their country's rules. Letting others lead you and teach you is part of becoming a good leader. It is especially true of learning about other cultures--we will never get it as well as those who have it in their blood. This also applies to our areas of expertise. Sometimes we need to let others teach us.

Applying this story to our Digital Divide program, I encouraged our team to think about taking our lead from our national society countries. Some of them have already figured out how to solve the IT gap. We need to learn from them, harvesting the best ideas and taking these to scale. Letting others take the lead means learning to be a good follower

This is why a technology catalog is at the heart of our program. As we discover applications, services and deals that are working, we will add them to an on-line catalog from which our country leaders can choose. That's turning upside down the typical IT approach that wants to assess and build. It means taking someone elses hand, an openness to learn, and amplifying it for others to benefit.

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