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Build Back Better from Within: Why Personal Leadership Matters Now More than Ever

By: Nanda Noor, Sustainable Land Use Project Lead

Confused. Silenced. Alone. Never before I expected to write this piece entirely from home. The ongoing pandemic has shifted the way WRI does its mission and how I personally live. We are lucky enough to have most of our operations intact, teams functioning and near-zero health cases. Organization-wise, we feel good, but personally, how do I really feel? Maybe it’s a coincidence that today marks two things: 2.5 months since WRI practiced physical distancing, and 2.5 years since I set sail with it. Not a bad recipe for another reflection.

After embarking on the first 7 months of working at WRI, I began to realize that the voyage often entails intellectually challenging, emotionally pressing, and physically demanding processes. Since then, orchestrating a symphony performed by more than a dozen staff to conduct multiple projects has been something I enjoy everyday, be it good or bad concert. Now that COVID-19 has made everyone work from home, at first my rhythm was disrupted and I struggled to keep the harmony going. It is testing anyone’s mental fortitude and self management, perhaps not having to stay productive all the time, but at least when it really matters. So what are personal leadership lessons we could take away?

Firstly, leaders at personal level are great students of adaptation strategy, and it does not matter if you are an “Architect” INTJ like me or have other MBTI types. From adjusting existing work plans to emerging new initiatives, virtual meetings are unavoidable. While we don’t travel as much, hence lower emissions that may or may not have temporarily made my job a bit easier, constant Zoom-ing would lead to more fatigue than in-person talks. This is due to our constant non-verbal interpretation when videos are off, and always being unconsciously aware of our appearances when videos are on. The messaging quality is lowered too, especially when sound technology and internet stability are not our best friend. Moreover, remember when our kitten at home asked us to play with them during a call? Imagine how much our coping mechanisms have been trained. It reminds me how precious direct engagement is, and from now on should never take it for granted.

WRI Indonesia's latest virtual town hall meeting in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic.

The second lesson is to prioritize. The chance to decide which meetings to join and rest in between each, has helped me focus and understand when calls have been too much or too little. Though so, I decided not to be too picky. I want to stay with my teams as we venture far through this difficult storm, as each of us are vulnerable, yet together we are stronger. They rely on me, and I rely on them. We know that human bonds and trust are not built overnight, and personal leadership involves a consistent exercise of communication and empathy. Just like physical exercise, leadership is a skill that must also be trained and practiced everyday. To do this, I believe the key is serious listening. I have learned that great leaders speak last - instead of starting the discussion, they are the ones ending it with decisions that matter for everyone. Personally I am sad, however, that it takes a pandemic like this to teach me that before trying to solve anything out there, my most important role is to take care of my people. As leaders, we are foremost responsible for the people in the team, before we are in charge of the job itself.

Lastly, leadership at this unprecedented time involves not only courage to recognize the reality that we are all physically suffering and/or mentally struggling, but also showcasing this-too-shall-pass optimism and letting go of thoughts about what we could have done. By sharing this bravery, I realized how much my teams are backing me up and vice versa, creating a cycle of positivity. It is through this kind of dire situation, that humanity could put aside competition, politics and differences and focus on who we truly are and what we can do now. After all, yesterday is history, tomorrow remains a mystery, but we always have today - a reason why it’s called ‘present’. For me, these are the necessary mindset to continue battling this pandemic to get back to my life, and fight this tough mission against emission with people and nature balanced at its center. Environmental issues are a life-long challenge that we should live with, just like we’re trying to co-exist with the virus before and after the cure. While leadership has already required a lot of personal sacrifices, this pandemic has made my job even more challenging. Leadership is then perhaps not for everyone, but each of us has the capacity to be one at least on a personal level.

In hindsight, perhaps this confusion doesn’t mean I should be stunned, silence doesn’t mean I should be voiceless, and being alone doesn’t mean I should be lonely. It’s due to darkness, that we see light. Borrowing wise words from a fellow Indonesian WRI-ers, it depends on each individuals to turn this threat into opportunities, while maintaining the flowness of learning like a calm river. Maybe then, it’s not overrated to say that to personally #BuildBackBetter, the vaccine has to start from within.

For those of you having these similar feelings in office and life, I would like to hear and exchange insights with you. Please reach my email at my profile page. Thank you, and stay healthy.

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