Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Quick Break from Reading

When people ask me what I have planned this summer, I often sheepishly but happily respond with: "a summer course at Yale University". As ambiguous as that statement may be for some, it's just become a habit of mine to avoid revealing the whole story all in one statement - a habit, I'm sure, that's originated from my general writing style. I usually never include that the course I was taking was about leadership unless I was asked to elaborate further. This tactic serves as a good indicator for conversations. Don't be too mysterious and abrupt that you seem uninviting and disinterested in what the person before you is asking but do provide just enough that so that they do follow up with more questions. This is how you know they are at least somewhat interested in what you're saying.

But back to the subject at hand, a class that revolves around the development of great leaders continue to fascinate me with sketicism. There is no doubt that the education I will obtain from Yale will be more than I could have ever duplicated from my past experiences and memories in classrooms back here in Pinole and even from my political philosophy class at Cornell last summer. However, it's the idea of teaching leadership that intrigues me the most.

The definition of a good leader is purely subjective. In most cases, one's capability to lead well is determined not immediately by what one can do in the present but by what one has done - observing such aspects as this individual's impact on his/her community and/or how well the people around him/her responds to his/her actions. With a love for English and Art, I welcome subjective topics. There is never a definite, right or wrong answer as long as you can be good at defending your opinions and persuading others to see your point-of-view as an idea worth considering. (My poor analytic friends who'd rather sit in math or science classes would playfully roll their eyes at me if they had to sit through another one of my random bursts of insight on the flexible views on art and/or the intriguing interpretations of an author's purpose).

However, as advantageous as subjective topics can be for some, there is another important aspect to them: learning to accept the opinions of others even if you do not agree with them. Defining a good leader is no exception. Just take a look back in history and the people around you; already you can start to distinguish how one embodies the very characteristics he/she feels is necessary to lead successfully. Plato shunned democracy - the people's ability to govern themselves - and envisioned individuals he called philosopher kings to rule the Utopian world he believed would best serve the Greek city-states of his time. Under divine law, the beginnings of medieval society didn't dare consider the legitimacy of their monarch's authority. And who could forget The Communist Manifesto (1848) - a book of one person's opinion strong enough to withstand the eras that would follow and continue to inspire even people today? There is no one, correct definition of a good leader, but several, infinite definitions, all with a varied amount of people who accept them. Those who observe leaders and derive their particular methods and behaviors can only take that knowledge and mold it with their own reasoning to produce a plausible definition of what being a good leader means to them. Those who become a leader should be open-minded to the varied methods of good leadership and, in addition, utilize such knowledge wisely with one's own sense of leadership when time calls for one's direction and guidance.

These are only a few of the things I've been thinking about in between and during my readings. Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi was the first of many YISP books that I read since I obtained their reading list. It was a good first choice (though I'm sure any book from the list would've been just as good considering how much I've generally enjoyed all my reading so far). For someone like me, it's easy to relate to Ferrazzi who also grew up in a hardworking family that strove to merely live comfortably, not luxuriously. Therefore, reading his rise to success felt like a fairytale - sort of.

It was really a guide to becoming successful in, specifically, the business world - Ferrazzi style. However, if business-minded people was all whom this book was meant for, than I highly doubt the YISP would dare let this book slip into their reading list again. For a motif one will always encounter while reading the books on the YISP reading list is that, no matter the setting or topic, the material each book teaches is very flexible as long as you remain open-minded. I cannot even tell you how often I've stopped abruptly while reading Never Eat Alone and thinking of how eerie it all was that the very things Ferrazzi was stressing were very similar to how the Ivy League Connection runs and operates - tight networking and making, well, connections.

According to Ferrazzi, a successful leader of the 21st century must depend on people now more than ever. Therefore, utilize technology. Consider the needs of all the people around you - be they the new intern or the CEO at the top - and never discriminate. Be fearless in taking risks if your gut tells you its an opportunity to achieve something great and be quick and optimistic to bounce back if your expectations are not met. Make connections and keep up with them because there's nothing more important to a successful leader, and a business leader especially, than networking.

Cyrus the Great was a good second choice in that it was a distinct contrast from the contemporary world of business and technology. Cyrus's world was the beginnings of the Persian Empire, the time around 600 B.C. However, as long ago as his legacy may have been, the leadership of Cyrus the Great is truly timeless and worth remembering. While reading of this benevolent and effective leader, I wonder why more of today's leaders are not adopting the methods of Cyrus. Surely, Cyrus the Great was fortunate enough to have grown up with a very influential father that ensured his son's moral goodness, but a gracious background alone does not solely determine one's leadership capabilities in the future. (Several of the female CEOs I met while at a Leadership Summit grew up with divorced parents and, as they looked back on this during their presentations, acknowledged that that very aspect of their lives only gave them more strength and motivation to achieve an even better future for themselves). Many of the clan leaders that encounter Cyrus the Great later on in the book remark at his kindness and wished they had only adopted his methods earlier on in their lives.

Of course, not all the suggestions made by Cyrus the Great could fully benefit President Obama's decision making, simply because they're two different times and two different circumstances. The center of Cyrus's life was his army, the war against the Median Empire, and later, his role as the King of Persia. The center of President Obama's life is that of a typical American and oh, that's right, in addition to his job of leading the American country and people - an overwhelming task that's surely more than what Cyrus the Great had ever encountered throughout his life. Yet, I cannot restate again just how little one can obtain from all this reading if one treated the material that literally. Cyrus the Great's idea of securing the good graces of all those around him is reminiscent to the ideas of Ferrazzi.

Establish a good network with the people around you, disregarding their social status. Never let over-confidence and personal ambition cloud your current objectives at hand. Be benevolent. Reward your people before you reward yourself.

Currently, I am reading The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan, a contemporary account to the famous war that forever changed the world of Ancient Greece and prevented the ideals of Democracy from continuing until it was given a new place to grow and thrive - the young country of the United States of America.

Yes, the reading is stressful and I'd be lying if I said there were no boring parts. However, I am fortunate that generally, what the texts have to offer is both very fascinating and intriguing. There are moments when I wish I was outside having summertime adventures with my friends or spending the little time I can with my two cousins from Hong Kong, who, by the way, are staying over for 2 weeks at my house.

Having them around is great but can also be very distracting. Every day there's some restaurant to eat at or some place to go. Sometimes, it gets hard to have to decline almost every single invite presented to you but I remind myself that the YISP, as short-lived as it will be on the time line of my summer this year, will be the highlight of my summer.

I remind myself that I should not treat these readings as merely requirements for the class but good knowledge in general - what better way to finish your senior year than to do so strongly with a whole summer's worth of knowledge on being a good leader? And what better way to go through college with all this insight as well? You should always treat everything you do as a learning opportunity; don't let anything be a waste of time even if that's what they appear on the surface. My fellow peers continuously ask me how I do well in school. It's not because I'm a genius (I wouldn't even say I was that smart). It's because I continue to work hard, never give up, and most importantly in high school: pay attention. Learning only stops the moment you step out of a classroom if you choose to stop learning when you pass the threshold. Do yourself a favor and continue to be open-minded.

PS: Reading my fellow cohorts' blogs on their experiences at Brown and Columbia does make me more excited than ever to start the YISP program but not enough that I'm ready to go next week. (I'm still quite nervous about what to expect there!)