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Learning to be Adaptive in Malaysia

Completing an eighteen month stint in Washington DC and experiencing the energy of one of the most important hubs in the United States – I was eager to jump into another adventure in Asia!

I am the pioneering Fellow in the inaugural Center for Asia Leadership Initiative-Atlas Corps Fellowship Program. To discover my purpose of creating solutions for today’s global challenges, I seek to learn from Asia’s phenomenal economic and social development, technological progress, and innovation.

Asia, a continent I had never set foot on before. Born in Turkey, educated and worked in Europe, the Middle East and the US, I have arrived to serve in the culturally diverse Malaysia. This fellowship destination is my ticket to further broaden my worldview as a social change agent. While here, I aim to build coalitions aimed at empowering individuals and institutions. This aim is further supported by the fact that Center for Asia Leadership Initiatives (CALI) addresses challenges and problems in Asia through research, development, training and publication initiatives in different areas, from education to diplomacy.

I couldn’t help but to relate to the fact that Atlas Corps itself was set-up inspired by Asia’s talents as a network for social change makers. As a pioneer, I am beginning to understand why. Asia is inspiring and dynamic in all its differences, strong identities, powerful countries and economies, ancient cultures and diverse communities. I can’t help but compare these exciting and inspiring developments to the impractical and polarized political discourses in the U.S. and Turkey. Indeed, after a month in Malaysia, I am learning how my past experiences are instrumental in shaping how I view and adjust to life here. It was cool to take a selfie with former US President Bill Clinton or talking about social justice and refugee aid work with Mrs. Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the US. Yet, it is only now that I am starting to understand how pivotal my experience in DC was for developing my personal and professional skills, introducing me to a powerful global network of like-minded individuals.

After serving as an Atlas Corps Fellow once, I have the confidence to view myself as part of that network, as a social change leader who can adapt and humbly help on local and international levels. Working together with Fellows from all over Asia on social issues and best practices, gave me a preview of the innovative, passionate, and hardworking people I have found here. My Atlas Corps chapter one is what enables me to write my chapter two at the Center for Asia Leadership Initiatives – and do so in a new country, a new region, and in a new role.

Why Is Leadership Important?

Not long after my arrival in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to attend one of CAL’s programs, a three-day leadership workshop jointly facilitated by Professor Dean Williams from the Harvard Kennedy School, and Samuel Kim, President and Co-founder of CAL. In addition to teaching, Professor Williams spent his career consulting and guiding political and corporate leaders around the world, through their sharing of global perspectives, we learned about adaptive challenges and leadership.

In this new, globalized environment, this framework on adaptive leadership is an important tool for us to deal with complex challenges that humanity faces today. An adaptive challenge is a complicated problem with often unclear components, and our interconnectedness can spark, catalyze, or compound these problems. After all, as Thomas Friedman mentions in The World is Flat, globalization has its positive and negative attributes.

Peaceful environments are not immune to global conflicts and injustices, and we need new forms of leadership to mobilize people to overcome our common challenges. For example, global social media has become a new tool for terrorist organizations in recruiting sympathizers around the world. The U.S. State Department initiated some programs to counter these extremist narratives on social media. Meanwhile, the same social media and new technologies have mobilized people who are living under oppressive regimes to share their struggles and seek support globally. Whether you’re looking at a challenge in your own community, dealing with intolerant political environments, or trying to collaborate between nation states, we need adaptive leaders that inspire people to explore root causes, collaborate, and find innovative solutions. We need more leaders or change agents to think like an artist, as Professor Williams described, to push boundaries, see differently, be creative, and change people’s perspective of the world.

 My Real-Life Adaptive Leaders

Learning about adaptive leadership made me realize how Atlas Corps Fellows embody its principles. Professor Williams mentioned that leadership is a process that needs to be developed by individuals. These individuals must be ready to step out their comfort zone and look for opportunities to expand their perspective, share with others, and enjoy more diversity. For me, Atlas Corps Fellows are the ones sailing in uncharted waters with courage, knowledge, and most importantly, open hearts and minds. They welcome “unknowns” as an opportunity to find the best solutions.

Another crucial leadership pillar from the workshop, which Atlas Corps Fellows possess, is the ability to zoom in and out when we are dealing with problems. Local voices are able to see internal dynamics, sides, or players of an issue. When they meet with other global change makers and seize international opportunities, they have the ability to adopt a global perspective and follow recent, pertinent trends. They have a chance to analyze what is going on in the background, what might be some larger factors influencing their local problem.

A third important principle of adaptive leadership is developing a network of internal change agents and cultivating a global mindset. Atlas Corps Fellows garner strength and perspective from this globally diverse network of social change leaders. This network and mindset allows them to easily adapt to new challenges while remaining aware and sensitive to complexities. They know the importance of engaging people from different sides, crossing boundaries, and building bridges through understanding. They help one another, exchange resources, and promote one another’s issues. They understand and respect differences while cultivating a global mindset.

Meeting Real-Life Adaptive Challenges

According to Professor Williams, a new mindset is exactly what we need in this “crazy and fractured world.” Professor Williams’ framework has helped me think about the challenges I’ve worked on in a new way. For example, he mentions the importance of starting a movement if gatekeepers block your playground. During my Atlas Corps Fellowship in DC, I helped my supervisor Steve Wozencraft with his vision for a movement of national awareness and advocacy around criminal justice reform.

I understand even better now why Steve worked hard to build coalitions and bring together diverse groups around this issue—as an adaptive challenge, criminal justice requires a broad perspective that addresses its varying factors, including criminalized poverty, poor mental health treatment, low income, and racism. Confronting mass incarceration in the U.S. requires bi-partisan leadership and multi-layered solutions.  I witnessed such leadership listening to various state governors, ones who are looking at the root causes of crimes rather than strengthening punitive laws, and trying to influence community behavior rather than imposing harsh regulations.

The mass influx of refugees is another adaptive challenge I’ve worked on. Turkey has been working to bring this issue to the world stage via the United Nations and European Union. Integration of these refugees into their host countries is a challenge for governments; we need to meet this challenge instead of waiting for an uncertain peace to arrive in their country. Collaborative and innovative integration programs can build trust between communities and avoid potential tension between refugees and locals, especially given the rise in xenophobia and scapegoating that immigrants and refugees face in difficult times. Adaptive leadership around this issue includes building regional coalitions, exchanging best practices, and empowering local efforts to improve life for refugees.

Other adaptive challenges include the rise of extremism; an increasing number of terrorist attacks; polarization within and between countries; and a rise of populism and intolerance. Sometimes, our decisions are shaped not by our experiences, but rather, our assumptions or beliefs. Leaders who have the capacity to bring people together and find common ground can meet these challenges, and Professor Williams emphasized that the fusion of diverse groups leads to the most creative solutions.

Adaptive challenges are large and uncertain, but Professor Williams has advised us to “keep the fire burning.” I would add to this advice by saying, “keep the fire burning with the people who help you keep your fire burning.” These are the people who will support you, challenge you to think positively, encourage you to step out of your comfort zone, and leverage their privileges to help others. This is how I keep going every day; I am grateful to be among these inspiring individuals as a Center for Asia Leadership Initiatives-Atlas Corps Fellow.

by Selma Bardakci