One Good Question with Ejaj Ahmad: Why we should build leadership instead of leaders

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Eisenhower Fellowship / International Education / One Good Question / Post-Secondary Education

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Bangladesh became independent in 1971, and while the founding leaders were visionaries, I’m not sure they thought deeply about the kind of education that the next generation would need to take the country forward? That’s my gut feeling. Once you ask this One Good Question, you are forced to somehow link your input and process with the output that you’re seeking.  As a country, we have not yet really explored the educational foundation that we need to put in place to create an inclusive and just society. I say this because we see it every day how the divided education system, namely English medium (British curriculum), Bangla medium (national curriculum) and Madrassa (Islamic studies curriculum), contributes to communal tension and violent politics. Young people from these divergent education streams grow up with differing values and ideologies and they rarely interact with people from other educational backgrounds. This is one of the root causes of many of the divisions we see in Bangladesh today. Moreover, the curriculum in school, college, and university relies primarily on rote learning which doesn’t foster creativity and critical thinking in students. As a result, most young people enter the job market with little prior training in problem solving.

At Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, we aspire to see the next generation exhibit values of inclusiveness, tolerance, and compassion. We also want to see them develop strong critical thinking skills so that they can question deeply held values and assumptions. Therefore, our organization runs after-school leadership programs that unite high school, college, and university students from the three different educational systems and provide them problem solving, leadership, and communication skills and engage them in the community where they can translate their learning into action by designing and implementing service projects.

You are committed to developing youth leadership and agency.  Why does it matter? 

This question is powerful because more than 52 percent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million is below the age of 25. Traditionally, we have always equated leadership with position. We use the word ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ interchangeably although intuitively we know that they are not the same. Leader is a person or a title, whereas leadership is an activity, which can be exercised from a position of authority or without a position of authority. Now imagine if every single young person perceived leadership as an activity and not as a position then the impact this shift in thinking can have in society. Young people don’t have titles and they don’t occupy public office. However, if they believe that they don’t need a title to exercise leadership and bring change then this sense of agency can have tremendous impact on society. We will no longer be waiting for elected officials to solve our problems; we can take ownership of our part of the problem and do our bit to make progress in our community.

Our youth leadership programs also take young people on a journey of self-exploration, which we also feel is critical for the world today. We need to help young people ask difficult questions, reconcile multiple identities and work across religious and cultural boundaries. This is especially relevant in today’s world where most of our conflicts happen due to differing values and identities. Yes, you are a Bangladeshi, or an Indian, or an American. But you are also a human being. What does it mean to be a human being in the 21st century? What are some of the values that we can all share across nationalities, cultures, and religions? I believe that good leadership education can make people curious and humble. If we can all learn to reframe our truths as assumptions and not hold a monopoly on what we believe to be true, I think we can do a better job of getting along with each other despite our differences.

Ejaj AhmadEjaj’s One Good Question: What values and habits from the past do you need to carry into the future? What values and habits were once useful but are no longer so? In other words, which part of our cultural DNA do we need to preserve and which part do we need to discard to create a better world, both for us and for the ones we love?

Ejaj Ahmad is an entrepreneur and an educator of leadership, who speaks and advises globally on leadership issues. He is the founder and president of Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC), a nonprofit that aims to create a more inclusive, tolerant, and just society by training the next generation of home-grown leaders. Ejaj holds a master’s in public policy from Harvard University and a master’s of arts with honors in economics from St. Andrews University.

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

1 Comment

  1. Building leadership is fine with all the self exploration and working across religious and cultural boundaries. But the most important issue that should be addressed immediately in Bangladesh is mandating our policy maker / or so call leader. You see with 80% of the population voters hardly understand or even consider the amelioration (reform) mentioned above, these fine (reformed) leaders shall never be mandated. Sorry about my inanition but it is like putting the cart in front of the horse.

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