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'Disempowered' Leader Overcomes Desire to 'Give Up'

Guest post from Nathaniel Houghton, the President & Founder of the Congo Leadership Initiative. CLI develops the next generation of leaders to be catalysts for peace and prosperity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Something interesting happened to me last month: I felt like giving up. This is interesting because over the last five years, it has almost never happened. So in it’s interestingness, this feeling was also alarming. I paid attention.

More details: this feeling occurred on a Monday (which… of course), CLI was wrapping up a disappointing quarter, I was personally broke, I felt like I had little support, and all of the funding that looked like it was going to come in by July still hadn’t found its way into our bank account. Being a “risk taker” and “having the courage” to start an organization and “going it alone” to “change the world” all sounds good, but if it was easy, everyone would do it.

Part of what was interesting to me is that I did not feel scared. Instead, I felt weak. Every time I attempted to take on a task, a voice in my head reminded me that I might be arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Nobody likes doing that, but especially not social entrepreneurs; we want to be moving icebergs out of the way. In short, I was disempowered.

This was a big problem, but it all seemed like an issue of my personal motivation. I assumed that it was something that I needed to deal with so that I could get back to my job. And as a part of that job, I had been doing quite a bit of thinking about scale. Scale is quickly becoming, or is already, social change’s bugaboo. I think we’re starting to realize that the ideas aren’t all that hard to come by and that you don’t need a law degree to establish a company or organization. Pulling off a successful pilot program isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not all that difficult either. Growing an organization, and doing it well, is the real challenge. But why is scale so hard?

Like most big problems, there are a lot of reasons: lack of capital, lack of training, lack of a market… the list goes on. But ultimately, scale is hard because of aggregated disempowerment. As an individual or team, realizing that you’ve worked harder than you ever have in your entire life and still lacking capital, training, or a market is sort of like being in the middle of a marathon and suddenly losing your legs. Empowerment is the fuel that drives scale, and I was experiencing at a personal level what was challenging CLI organizationally.

Ultimately, overcoming the challenge of scale will require significant grit. However, I think we can all do a better job of understanding the importance of empowerment as we attempt to scale. I’m feeling better about myself and about CLI, but to move the needle and make progress against the challenges of developing our world, we’ll need to train all social entrepreneurs to believe in themselves - even when things get really hard. Regardless of title or position, that’s something we can all contribute to. 

Congo Leadership Initiative

Nathaniel Houghton

Nathaniel Houghton found one of the worst places on the planet and decided not only that it could be fixed, but that he could lead the way in doing it.  At age 23, he has a perspective that at least half the population lacks: while he anticipates that it may take the better part of twenty years for outcomes that he hopes to see, he’ll still be a relatively young man then.

At nineteen, Nate first visited The Congo and began building a deep connection to it that has now become his full time occupation.  As the founder and CEO of the Congo Leadership Initiative (CLI), he works full time to bring leadership training to a country where students are taught facts not critical thinking and to follow rather than lead.

Nate once said:

The best way to help the world is to find something you love doing and figure out how to positively impact someone else’s life through your talents and interests. I think startups are cool, and that’s what CLI is. I believe in our product - leadership - and its power to change the world.

Nate is convinced that if we teach young people, starting in high school, the art of critical thinking and the science of leadership that they themselves will find solutions to their country’s tremendous problems, rapidly accelerating the pace of development in their impoverished country.

At three times the size of Texas, Congo is the second largest country in Africa.  At $348 per year, the per capita income of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) makes it arguably the poorest nation on the planet.  Nate notes that the violence that famously ravaged Rwanda in the 90s still persists in parts of the DRC.  The country has rich, largely untapped natural resources that some estimate represent the richest deposits of natural resources on earth.

The Congo Leadership Initiative has a team on the ground running a variety of leadership training programs, some of which are open to all who are interested and others to which students must apply for admission.  By screening the students, they find those with the highest potential for leadership and teach them not only how to be great leaders but also key principles of social responsibility.

Stephie was one of the first students through the program when she was a senior in high school.  Now attending the university and studying psychology, she volunteers at her old high school teaching students there the leadership concepts she’s learned in the CLI program.  

Nate describes Stephi’s leadership as an “output” of CLI, but Nate is patiently looking ahead ten or twenty years to a time when CLI graduates have become real leaders both in corporations and governments in Congo and they will be able to drive the “outcomes” that Nate envisions, radically altering the course of events in Congo.

As I visited with Nate about CLI, I was impressed by two things in particicular:  1) Nate’s long view of things, and 2) that at 22, Nate left a dream job with a large technology company where most people only dream of working (he asked me not to say where) to devote himself full time to CLI.

Nate is starting early to leave a mark on the world, inspiring me to give a little and do a little more.  There are huge problems in this world, but none so big that we can’t solve them working together.

Where is your mark on the world?

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