Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Leadership Journey of Vijith Randeniya, Chief Fire Officer, West Midlands

Rising from the lowest ranks to the top rank within an organization took 26 years of relentless and passionate commitment to duty for Vijith Reandeniya now 49. After earning a degree in modern history, Vijith chose to opt for a path of a fire officer despite the resistance from his parents. Vijith says, his father believed he wasted a good degree as firefighting was not his idea of a professional career for his son. But Vijith joined with an aim in mind, to change the stereotype about opting for a career in fire services. Currently, Vijith is incharge of GBP 120m budget and 2600 staff handling one of the two biggest fire stations in England and Wales. Vijith’s parents migrated from Sri Lanka, not knowing that their son would later become the first Asian chief officer of any fire service in England and Wales.

This is no ordinary story of personal leadership where someone starts at the lowest of the ranks and move up the ladder to be the chief. Setting up higher standards and attention to details is what defines a lifestyle for Vijith. He has been highly motivated and driven by the life and personality of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and ranks him as one of his mentors (and highly recommends listening to the inaugural speech of JFK). When on path of leadership, studying and education never ends. Vijith during his career earned his graduate degree in Management and finally ended up getting an honorary doctorate degree as well.

From the perspective of leadership, Vijith believes that there is no such thing as a perfect leader. “As a human, we are all vulnerable. People pull us down. And at times emotion gets us. But you should have sense of ambition that keeps you rolling and climbing again”. His best moment in life was when he was awarded by the Queen and when his father proudly talks about his son being the Chief Fire Officer. His current ambitions include making his fire station the best anywhere in the world. In this pursuit he is trying to address the fundamental challenges of avoiding fires rather than fighting them. Prevention is better than cure. Nothing like it!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing!

Some may not agree, but ask the winners. Winning tastes good. It’s an absolute fun to enjoy the cakes, sweets, and drinks on the bus (“boos”) especially if you have won them. Frontiers planned it and won it together with the Laughing Leaders for Birmingham group. The action packed Sunday morning still remains a memorable anecdote.

It started with Alison’s challenge of being the first one to pack and be at porters lodge as a group early morning. Someone from the Frontiers group took it seriously and proposed in the group gathering, “Let’s go for it”. I still remember the element of surprise on the group leader’s (Betul) face but despite her tiredness she valued the group’s decision to sacrifice sleep. Room numbers and telephone numbers got exchanged and listed. Next morning this little piece of paper with all the numbers made the difference. Frontiers were all ready, together, completed at porters lodge. But winning isn’t that easy. It revealed that the challenge included the group coupling named as Birmingham group (Frontiers + Laughing Leaders). Unless the other group is ready as well, we can’t win. And here goes Amir on the run to gather his folks to let us all win. I must say, leading from the front, his on spot initiative and promptness to not give up the prize made a vital difference. He collaborated and quickly gathered n-1. Searching out Saeeda was not an easy task but somehow he even did that in the matter of minutes :-) “Kudos Amir. Leadership at times brings in some extra responsibility; I hope you will cherish it being amongst the winners.”

As they say, “if you're a champion, you have to have it in your heart”.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Naught But A Single Nation" by Guest Blogger - Memoona Sajjad, Pakistan

Memoona is currently teaching and also working as a freelance writer. Her first book "Us versus Them and Beyond" was released in March 2010.

‘And mankind is naught but a single nation.’ (The Quran, 2:213)

My friend from Mosaic Sayka Hussain summed it up best to her inquisitive colleagues when asked what the Mosaic International Summit was all about_ ‘What would you make of a place with 80 people from all over the world, different cultures, languages, backgrounds... conservative Saudi Arabia rubbing shoulders with secular Turkey, Pakistan with Bangladesh... and guess what_ true respect for difference, a genuine desire to know and understand, celebration of diversity, sharing, learning, enlightening discussions, and some real fun.’

A paradigm of refreshing rarity in this puzzling, jostling world_ that’s the Mosaic International Summit. I remember the dismal air of gloom that hung over my city as it still reeled from the scars of a horrific terrorist attack earlier in July. I also remember the nervousness and anxiety, the clammy hands clutching the crumpled bit of paper with ‘safar ki duaein (prayers for travelling)’ written across it on the way to the airport. I remember reading worrying reports about the banning of veils in Europe, and the likelihood of it happening in the UK too, and getting jittery about the whole thing... and I remember how soon it all became a distant memory.

I’ve often read and heard of unity in diversity and seen bespectacled intellectuals make a big deal out of it, but these past few days I actually saw it work, witnessed it all around, experienced it, lived it. Eighty people from all over the world, and yet the instant bonding, the connectedness, the fraternal feeling, almost. You say that magic word ‘Salam alaikum’, and there you go_ the tautness leaves you, the stiffness goes out, and you feel warmed up, bursting into a smile_ as simple as that.

Now that I can reflect on the extraordinary experience, I know it was the ‘Muslim connection.’ Because beneath all our colours, shades and shapes, we shared core values. With all our diversity, we converge in a Unity that arises out of the faith we all share. Even as we travel on our own marked out pathways and make our own individual journeys, we are linked to the Centre that holds_ like those myriads circling the Sacred House_ always moving, yet always firmly linked to the Centre that holds_ Homeward bound.

To write down what I learnt at Mosaic International Summit is to try and put an abysmal intensity in black and white. However, one of the many lessons that was significant to me personally was the tremendous force with which the reality of the resounding ‘Verily, We have honoured the Children of Adam’ (The Noble Quran, 17:70) was driven home to me; that we all are honoured in being human; and that every individual is a piece in the Mosaic painted by the ‘Moving Finger’, adding to the colour, completing the design and making it whole. Every individual fits into and adds to that bigger picture; every individual is intrinsically valuable for his God-given humanness.

The experience of meeting spirited, visionary young Muslims from the world over revived in me the Hope that was so dangerously dwindling with news alerts, breaking news updates and appalling headlines. If 80 people, as my friend had so candidly put it, could foment the most enduring ties in two weeks and eighty different voices could break out in chorus ‘Different colour, one people...’, there was promise on the horizons. If this spirit could be magnified onto the world scene, a lot of obstacles could be surmounted, a lot of barriers could fall and stereotypes shatter.

Meeting people who had made it big in life and had substantially contributed to society reinstated my Idealism, and convinced me it was not foolish or vain to dream and to idealize. It was not stupid to have a vision for a better world even in your smallness. Every journey begins with a single step. You only have to know it will take you there. The signposts on the journey come from the faith you subscribe to, and guidance is to stay the course signposted for you. As a Muslim, I was awe struck to find that for every issue we discussed or focussed on_ be it leadership, sustainability, poverty alleviation or interfaith harmony_ there was a clear and comprehensive guideline, a definitive pointer, a solution indicated in the sacred texts of Islam. And hence Islam is no religion, but a Code of Life. Truly. It has always been faith that has inspired people to attain the highest of human aspirations, and it is Islam that informs our response as Muslims to the challenges confronting us today. On leadership, Islam tells us we have to be followers before we can lead; it tells us we all have a leadership responsibility within our own spheres, and that we are all as ‘shepherds to our flocks’, as the Prophet (SAW) used the analogy. On sustainability, Islam tells you to respect the natural Balance Allah has created: ‘And We have set up the Balance; so do not transgress the due Balance.’ (The Quran, 55:9) On poverty it tells you it must be eliminated by all means, as Ali (R.A) said, ‘If poverty was a person, I would have killed it.’ It teaches the importance of charity, and gives a system to regulate and establish it as a permanent means to bridge socio-economic disparity. However, it also tells you charity may help lift people out of a crippling animal existence, but that the real need is to create sustainable means of income generation through vigorous economic activity and an egalitarian, inclusive culture_ just as the Prophet (SAW) preferred to teach the beggar who approached him to fend for himself rather than just give him charity. It teaches you that while you put your faith in God, you also have to ‘tie your camel tight’, and that ‘Allah does not change the condition of any nation, until they change themselves’(The Noble Quran, 13:11) _ putting the onus on human initiative, individual and communal effort rather than Messianic hero-worship and inaction. I leant, as Councillor Afzal Khan CBE quoted from a hadith, that ‘He whose Today is not better than his yesterday, is a sure loser,’ and as Mr. Arif Zaman quoted in his parting message, ‘Value five things before five others... youth before old age, wealth before poverty, free time before getting busy, health before illness, and life before death.’ (hadith of the Prophet SAWW, narrated by Abu Dharr R.A) I learnt, as professor Keeler put it, that ‘Islam is a Balance produced by a Unity imparted through Revelation: the highest and most powerful form of Knowledge...’, and that it depends on us what we wish to take from the thousands of years of the Islamic experience and its heritage.

I noticed also that all of the extraordinary leaders we met_ Muslim or non Muslim_ shared one common, basic value_ they all had vision that transcended the immediate, short term material goal. They all had their eyes fixed on Yonder, and rose above the pettily personal. That is what made them people of personal integrity, character, principle, upstanding virtue. I learnt that this is the most fundamental component of true leadership, in whatever capacity. Because, as Imran_ a delegate from from UK put it, at the end of the day, we are all going into our own graves, and we are all going to have to answer for our actions. So it really is about your individual/personal choices in life, your sensitivity to the moral voice, your intentions, your sincerity. Even when we work for our fellow human beings, the punchline is that ‘in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.’

I look back with both nostalgia and thanksgiving. Some Mosaic moments come to haunt, instruct, enlighten, reassure and cheer up. From so many of my friends I learnt that beneath our skins and appearances we had so much in common, so much to share... I learnt how fickle our stereotypes are, how infantile our preconceived notions. I learnt that freedom and liberty is to be yourself and let the other be, and to respect their right to be themselves. (thank you Afrah, Demet, Pinar, Yavuz, Tabinda, Amir, Unjela) I learnt to rise above external trappings and value the essence within; I learnt the importance of self-awareness, a sense of identity and the strength to profess it in order to venture into someone else’s sacred space (thank you Rizwan A). I learnt to embrace diversity and respect difference. I felt the warmth and the strength of holding hands and together walking the tedious Path, yet sure of the Guiding Hand, moving on, hoping to get There, eventually (thanks, Sayka). I relished that wonderful feeling of being understood, trying to understand, sharing, exchanging, learning, unlearning. (thank you Fatma, Saeeda, Leena, Sumayyah, Laila D, Muna and Laila M; thanks Sally, Shazmeer, Shafiullah and Dani, Syrafil, Anas, Lamine, Omar, Ria, Zara, Awin, Noor, Rashed, Rizwan S, Aarij, Ammar, Arkan, Ahmad and Kurdi). Thank you Lamia, Aseel, Sharizad, Mia, Firouza, Didi, Rahmat, Heru, Iben, Wulan, Farhiya, Nasra, Waseef, Muntaser, Hamza, Ebrahim, Abu Ala, Narmin, Liana, Rania, Amal, Fajr, Maryam and ALL my newfound brothers and sisters. Ifti and Pinar, thank you both for the intelligent discussions. Jamil, thanks for the help and support right from the first Etihad counter and all the way, literally. Palwasha, thanks for inspiring me in your gentle, quiet manner. Afzal, Salman, Adil, Ishtiaq and my other Pakistani friends, you give me so many reasons to be proud of and hopeful for my country.

A recurring memory is of the last night before departure, when John (or John O’Brien, executive head of MOSAIC) sat with some of us, sharing his journey to Mosaic, and what Mosaic had come to mean to him. He confided in us the values this had imparted to him, and how his encounter with every single one of the extraordinary people at Mosaic had been part of the personal journey of Self Awareness he had been chosen to make. He shared how it had made him look at some of the subtle biases he had grown up into, with maturity, critical insight and a humanistic vision. John’s experience resonated with many of our own stories of what Mosaic had come to mean to us. And in the magic of that moment, the diversity of the little group we were, the Welshness, whiteness and blue-eyedness, the brownness, blackness and veiledness, holiness or unholiness dissolved away into nothing_ for we were as one, able to feel, think, respect, empathize, understand, respond, laugh and weep_ just different colours, but one people... thank you, John!

I remember how during the presentations at Mosaic, whenever any of the presenters talked of the ‘Eighty extraordinary young leaders’, I would shrink into myself, thinking ‘seventy nine, actually.’ After this vigorous, overwhelming, transforming experience, I feel inspired, motivated, driven, sure of myself, confident of my vision, hopeful, energized, empowered, connected and resourceful... ready to take the plunge. And so do the seventy nine others. I browse through my mailbox reading messages from Bangladesh, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan expressing not merely concern over the recent devastating floods in my country, but activism, responsibility, empathy and a desire to lend a hand. I am reassured, heartened... and a familiar hadith rings in my ears: “The believers, in their mutual mercy, love and compassion, are like a (single) body; if one part of it feels pain, the rest of the body will join it in staying awake and suffering fever.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari).

I rise on the wings of Hope_ all is not lost!