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Leadership lessons that I have learned from growing up in a third-world country

Map of Myanmar (Burma)

I was born in a country in Southeast Asia called Myanmar (was previously known as Burma) and I lived there until I was a teenager. Contrary to what many people tend to think, I lived a pretty comfortable and sheltered life.

But by growing up in a third-world country, I had seen and witnessed a lot of things that shaped me into who I am today. It has made such a huge impact on how I view myself and others, work, life and everything else in between.

Because of that, I’d like to share with you four leadership takeaways that I have learned from growing up in a third-world country.

Lesson #1: Be Resourceful

Myanmar traditional toys made with clay. Photo by Akar Soe.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of cool and battery-automated toys that my daughter has today. Not because my parents couldn’t afford them, but simply because they were not available in the country. However, I have very fond memories of my childhood and I remember having a lot of fun playing with toys made from mud and recycled materials like fabric and paper boxes.

Likewise, in leadership —

As a leader, many times you have to be resourceful and think creatively to achieve results.

For example, if you suddenly lost funding for an important project, you’re not going to go to your team who has been working hard for the past few months and tell them that they stop working on the project. You need to think creatively, be innovative and be resourceful to find an alternative solution to the funding problem.

Lesson #2: Be Generous

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

Many people in Myanmar didn’t have a lot. There was (and probably still is) a huge gap between the rich and the poor. However, I had witnessed that those who didn’t have a lot were often more generous. They would give their time to help out at community events, they would feed stray dogs with whatever food they were eating, they would tell you where you can find the best and cheapest deals and so on.

They were generous with their time, generous with their belongings, and generous with their knowledge.

But let me clarify that being generous as a leader doesn’t mean giving away your money. Donating money to those who need it is definitely good, but I want to focus on being generous with your time and your knowledge as a leader. This means taking time to listen to your team members, sharing your knowledge at every chance you get and being there for your team.

Generous leaders are those who empower, inspire and encourage their team to achieve what they thought was impossible.

Lesson #3: Be Hopeful

Myanmar woman with Ta-Na-Khar on her face

I have seen many people who were living so close to poverty and worse, who were actually in poverty when I was in Myanmar. When I was in primary school, my mother used to take me to a local wet market. On the way there, I saw so many poor people who lived in tents next to any building they could find, so that they would have one wall for their homes.

These people could only afford to eat one proper meal a day. However, they had Ta-Na-Khar (traditional Myanmar foundation) on their face and they were all smiles every day!

They would wake up early in the mornings to go to the local market and sell whatever they could sell to make some cash, so they could feed their families that one meal of the day — vegetables or fruits that they had picked out, foods or snacks that they had prepared, or handmade products that they crafted the night before.

How did they stay so happy when their lives were far from desirable and comfortable?

Because they are hopeful. They live with hope. They live with hope that one day, they will be free from poverty. They live with hope that something incredible will happen to them one day.

They live with hope that one day, something will change in the country, their children will get education and they will all live a better life.

So many hopes, and those hopes keep them alive and positive.

How does this apply to you as a leader?

Allow me to give examples —

You can’t seem to see an end to a hard project at work? Be hopeful.

You get too much pressure to achieve financial results? Be hopeful.

You think your company is in trouble and your customers are leaving to your competitors? Be hopeful.

Because when you are hopeful, you become more positive, you cultivate a positive environment, you inspire others and you can figure out a way to move forward together.

Lesson #4: Be Grateful

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

Myanmar, just like most third world countries, didn’t have good infrastructure and quality of life. Public transportation system was a joke, electricity was unaffordable and sometimes even unavailable, and adequate health care and quality education were far and few. This was true except for a very few representatives of privileged population in the country.

However, I didn’t remember hearing a lot of complaints. Not from my immediate family nor my community. My parents, my grandparents, my friends, my neighbours and everyone around me were always grateful for what they had. They spent their energies and efforts on making things better instead of complaining.

As a leader, I’ve make a conscious decision never to complain about how hard being a leader is to my team members. Every job has its goods and bads — whether you are a senior executive, a manager or a front line employee.

Being a leader is a privilege.

So I’d like to encourage every leader to appreciate your role. If you are in a situation that is less than ideal, use your energy to making things better instead of complaining.

Leadership Starts from Within

“A landscape view of temples with hot air balloons going into the sky in old began.” by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

John Maxwell, an American author, speaker and thought leader in leadership has summed up the meaning of leadership and being a leader quite perfectly,

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.”

I will always be grateful about growing up my home country Myanmar because it has influenced me to be a better leader and person.

Thank you for reading!

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