A Fresh Perspective: Selfless Leadership in Nicaragua

After having spent the past ten days in Nicaragua for the LeaderSurf leadership development program I returned home on Sunday.  Monday morning I awoke to the realities of the developed world. An airplane flying over my home woke me up at 5:30am, a sound that was noticeably absent from my mornings in Nicaragua.  After putting on pants for the first time in ten days, I got in my car and drove through rush hour traffic to work.  I don't recall passing a single smiley person on my way to work.  As I entered the office I thought about the people of Nicaragua (Nicas) and their work and living conditions.  Such a contrast from the over air-conditioned and artificially lit conditions that I work in.

 Typical Nica making the best of their living conditions

Typical Nica making the best of their living conditions

The photo above is burned into my brain and I cannot forget this image and several others like it.  It continues to make me question my reality and a bigger question about what makes people happy.  The Nica people are very poor.  In fact Nicaragua ranks as the second poorest country in the western hemisphere second only to Haiti.  The living conditions are shockingly bad and the lack of access to bare necessities such as clean drinking water make matters worse.  Despite the conditions, the Nica people are some of the kindest and happiest people I have met anywhere in the world.

This was my fourth trip to Nicaragua.  I run a leadership development program called LeaderSurf that brings corporate executives to Nicaragua for a week of learning and personal development.  The program has the intent of shifting the participants lens' on the world and the experience is quite powerful.  I chose Nicaragua for the program because of the contrast between their way of life and that of the executives who attend the program.  The drive from the airport in Managua to the Buena Onda Beach Hotel alone is an eye opening experience.  

 Nicaraguan Highway

Nicaraguan Highway

The image above is not some remote road, but actually a main highway in Nicaragua.  The program participants quickly realize how different life is in Nicaragua than where they live.

Aerial View of Nicaraguan Community

One of the highlights of the program is the community project day.  We partner with a local doctor and community leader to provide aid to a local village.  For each program he chooses a different community for us to support.  Access to clean drinking water is a major issue in Nicaragua.  The community we visited is home to 300 families and they don't have a source of clean drinking water.  They use rain capture systems for water or drink water from the nearby river which is contaminated.  Our community project day entails traveling to the village to meet the people and to help them install water filtration systems.  Additionally program participants bring school supplies clothing and other items for donation to the community.

Servant Leadership is the act of helping others

Leadership should be a selfless not a selfish act. Through our water aid program we are making a sustainable difference for Nicaraguan families.  We are teaching the locals who receive the filters how to install and maintain the water purification systems.  These systems will provide a safe, sustainable source of clean drinking water. The community project is an impactful and essential component of the LeaderSurf program.  It exposes our participants to the poverty that impacts the people of Nicaragua.  This helps the participants place their work and life challenges into perspective.

The community project is an emotional day that leaves participants feeling a myriad of emotions.  Emotions that come to mind are humbled, sad, fulfilled, empathetic, proud, lucky, fortunate, powerless, powerful and content.  The words run the gamut because the aid project only scratches the surface of the work that needs to be done.  Participants leave with more questions than answers.  Did we really help these people or was the impact of sixteen filters, some clothes and school supplies too small to make a difference?  In truth, the work makes a tremendous difference even if it is not seen first hand.  Spending a day giving back to these people models a leadership behavior that all leaders need to do more of and that is serving others.  One filter alone can provide 100 gallons of clean drinking water per day.  For a community like the one we visited, we provided a sustainable source of 1,600 gallons of clean drinking water per day which has a hugely positive impact.  The school supplies and clothing will go a long way towards helping the children gain a better education.

Each time I leave Nicaragua, I leave with some guilt.  I feel guilt because I could have done more for the people and I feel guilt because luck provided me with a different life.  Writing this blog post in my air conditioned office dressed in uncomfortable pants and work attire, I begin to question am I really lucky to have been born where I was?  Does my higher standard of living translate into a happier life?  Would I be happier in a hammock with my child on my lap than I am in the first world rat race?  I feel most fortunate in that I can use my experiences to help others see the world through a different lens and provide much needed assistance to those less fortunate than me.