Leadership in Action Project with Think Pacific

Reflections on my 5-week project with Fiji-based Think Pacific which centred upon raising awareness of the major problems posed by plastic pollution

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9,800 miles away never felt so close, for over the past month I have been zooming in and out of Fiji as part of my Leadership in Action project, immersing myself in their culture and working collaboratively with Fijians to have a positive impact on their communities. Trading the mediocre West Walian weather for the golden beaches and cloudless skies of Fiji – well, virtually at least – I have been working alongside Think Pacific to put my leadership skills in action. And with just over a week of the project remaining, now seems an opportune moment to reflect on the experience and to share my thoughts as to how this project has enriched my understanding of leadership.

 

Before doing so, however, allow me first to outline the project itself and to explain my motivations for working with Think Pacific. Think Pacific is an organisation which works closely with dozens of charities, NGOs and government ministries in Fiji, and it is with one of these NGOs that I have been working for the past month. Precious Plastics is a youth-led organisation which seeks to provide a solution for plastic pollution, and the brief they gave myself and two other Laidlaw scholars was to ‘develop a plastics and recycling awareness programme for high school students’ as part of their partnership with the Ministry for Education. The goal, simply, is to educate and empower young Fijians to take action to address plastic pollution which threatens to cause significant ecological, economic and social damage to Fiji and the world.

 

I chose to pursue my leadership in action project with Think Pacific for three primary reasons. Firstly, as an International Relations student, I strongly believe that to better understand the world and its people one must reach out and engage with the world at every opportunity. And given that my study abroad at the University of California, Berkeley, was cancelled due to the pandemic, I was even more determined to work on a project that would extend an opportunity to work internationally. Think Pacific allowed me to do just that.

 

Secondly, a central objective of Think Pacific is to immerse its interns in Fiji’s unique culture so as to maximise their cultural intelligence. The entire first week of the project, for instance, comprised of learning about Fiji’s history and traditions and every Wednesday night, a culture session is arranged for the interns. This emphasis on culture symbolised that Think Pacific would offer not only an opportunity for me to develop professionally but also to grow as a conscientious global citizen, something which greatly appealed to me.

 

And thirdly, the raison d’être of the leadership in action project is to step out of your comfort zone. Working virtually within a completely new context in Fiji was as good an opportunity as possible given the current pandemic-related circumstances and, therefore, Think Pacific was an organisation within which I felt I could maximise my leadership development. Altogether, Think Pacific offered the perfect mix of personal and professional development within an international setting which was exactly what I wanted from this leadership in action project.

 

By practicing various elements of leadership during the project, I’ve come to appreciate two traits which, to my mind, are vital to becoming an effective leader. The first of which is the ability to be flexible. Sometimes, it was necessary for me to adopt a personable and collaborative approach as team leader, for example when brainstorming ideas. At other times, however, a more assertive style was required when delegating tasks and setting deadlines. Simply conforming to one leadership mould was insufficient.

 

Moreover, as important as the capacity to be flexible, the ability to recognise when that flexibility was needed is also vital. Analysing the room and identifying what the team needed at that point in time is essential, and I feel that by placing me in a leadership position, this project challenged me to develop the capacity to recognise what style was required for a given scenario. This, I believe, propelled me to greater embody the flexibility that marks effective leaders.

 

The second trait which stood out to me during the project was the criticality of a leader’s ability to motivate others. A leader is nothing without his followers; indeed, as the well-known quip argues, a leader without followers is just a man going for a walk. Therefore, being able to connect effectively with their team is of paramount importance for a leader. What I learned through this experience, consequently, was that there are various ways in which leader-follower relationships can be cultivated and that, in fact, different followers will have to be motivated in different ways.

 

For example, I found that some within the team reacted best when I shared a clearly communicated vision with them. On the other hand, others responded better to working towards concrete quantitative targets within a strict timeframe. Overall, the ability to understand people and, moreover, understand what makes truly motivates them was essential to coalescing the team around a leader’s goals and vision. Consequently, I have come to view leadership as the art of understanding people and the science of applying that understanding to achieve an end-goal.

 

In conclusion, my leadership in action project this summer has been an enthralling experience which has certainly broadened my understanding of what constitutes a successful leader and provided me with an invaluable opportunity to implement some of those traits. At this point, I would like to thank Cam Watson and the Think Pacific team for pulling together such a meaningful programme and for introducing me to the wonderful people of Fiji whom I hope to meet in-person one day. Furthermore, I’m also extremely thankful to the Laidlaw team in St Andrews for their support and guidance throughout the summer and my time as a Laidlaw scholar.  

And finally, I would like to extent my most sincere thanks to Lord Laidlaw himself for his generosity in financing this scholarship and for the valuable opportunities it has offered me. As I approach the end of my time as a Laidlaw scholar, I know that I have grown immensely as a researcher, a leader and, most importantly, as a person thanks to the programme. For that, I am extremely grateful to have been offered the opportunity to be a part of the Laidlaw programme.