The first time I met him was in March 2015, and at that time he was remarkable in an unremarkable way; he was a chubby little boy with a curious dress sense and an eagerness to stand out. We later joked about his checkered shirt and tie combo on his first visit to South Africa to participate at the second African Leadership Academy Model African Union (ALAMAU) conference, but I did not pay much attention at the time to this one energetic Nigerian from a crowd of 112 young African leaders. The second time we met, later that year, I needed no reminder – Mubarak Adetunji was a character. What strikes me today is that neither my first nor my second meeting with him gave me any indication that three years down the line, I would learn three of the most significant leadership lessons of my life from the boy in the checkered shirt.
In 2015, Mubarak had travelled with his school group from Nigeria to attend a conference for which I had earnestly laboured for the better part of the previous two years; I knew the names of all the attendees, but I was not able to master all the faces in five short days. I don’t recall having had a direct conversation with him at the time, but I must have impressed him somehow, because I later heard that he returned to Nigeria and told everyone that he was determined to study at ALA full-time. I had no clue. When I made the trip to Lagos, Nigeria to conduct interviews on behalf of the Academy in December 2015, the first candidate whom I saw alighting from the Corona Secondary School bus, comfortably dressed in shorts and sneakers was none other than Mubarak. He had a characteristic swagger about him and he quickly proceeded to give me a hug. While I did not mind his exuberance, I was not eager to give off any false signal that he would have a walkover in the interview; if anything, I was going to seriously scrutinize the ones who felt that they already had a leg in. He spoke about his love for the saxophone and how one of the highlights of his life so far was playing a Lagbaja tune at a school event which had in attendance the man who had only recently become the nation’s Vice President. He had an infectious confidence.
Less than nine months on from our second meeting, I could now easily spot Mubarak in the crowd of arriving first year students at the Academy; he had achieved his dream, prevailing against the insistence of his mother that the United World Colleges were a better guarantee for his academic progression. It was clear that Mubarak really wanted to be at ALA and more importantly, he wanted to join the International Relations Council which I headed. Unlike many other first year students, he was not terrified when I outlined the rigour of auditioning for the Council; he was not fidgety during his 90-second speech the following week, and he appeared unsurprised that he had been chosen as one of six students to attend the Georgetown Model United Nations conference in Qatar, just a month after arriving at the Academy. If anything, he appeared overconfident.
At the Academy, I have built a reputation for having a tough exterior which few people venture to challenge, but one which leads into a very soft core reserved for the courageous. Because Mubarak had grown close to me, I welcomed him to random conversations at my desk and genuinely took interest in his growth. He spoke with me about his academic interests, his reluctance to get involved in sports, his desire to continue to play the saxophone at ALA, his passion for the school’s Acapella group, and his hopes of becoming the fifth Chairperson of ALAMAU. I happily encouraged every one of his aspirations, but that last one, I perceived, was going to be a shot too far. For the previous four years, I had handpicked the conference Chairpersons and I had built an archetype in my mind of who a suitable candidate would be. They would be extremely calm and composed; they would command the respect of their peers; they would be intellectual soulmates of mine; they would be unflappable in the face of challenges; they would delight staff and faculty at the Academy; they would be academically grounded; and they would portray an image of honour and distinctiveness. When we opened up the portal for nominations, the first self-nomination came in almost immediately and there were no surprises – Mubarak was chasing his dreams head-on. I knew that all I had to do was find another suitable position on the team for him and everything would be fine. I already had my eyes on a candidate for the role and her name was not Mubarak.
For the first time in five years, 11 people applied for the role of Chairperson, and that was either due to the growth of the program or the fact that the outgoing Chairperson, Salma Khai Ahmed was so good at the job. I glanced up and down the list severally, not being convinced that any of them was a perfect fit – one person wanted it desperately, several others thought they had a shot, but the anointed one kept the search committee waiting endlessly. At the end of the day, the role loomed too large over her and we made a call to check out the other 10 candidates. It was inevitable that the one person for whom this was a long-term aspiration had just about ticked off enough boxes to emerge as the head of a 55-man team. Mubarak was the fifth Chairperson of ALAMAU. It was also the first time in more than a decade of appointing people to positions that my first choice candidate did not emerge. I thought that I could get past the disappointment of not seeing my perfect vision come to reality, but I was proven wrong over the succeeding nine months.
For much of Mubarak’s tenure as conference Chairperson, I was not fully mentally invested in the relationship, and I deeply regret that to this day. I held on a little too long to a vision which I had, and the resultant effect was that the program which I dearly loved nearly crashed. I found myself being a little standoffish in my interactions with the team and my responses to questions were mostly cold and short. I had never been so disinterested in something which I created and I feared for its future. As Christmas came around in 2017 and my life was changing, I knew that my disposition had to change as well. The program was tethering and Mubarak was flailing; I got right with myself during a long walk and chose to flip a switch. I reached out to Mubarak before Christmas just to say hello; something I had barely done all year. It was evident that I had unwittingly starved him of the growth support that he desperately needed, and that crushed me. I had to make amends. Therein was the first leadership lesson that Mubarak taught me: Never allow your emotions to get in the way of making good leadership decisions. I had misjudged Mubarak’s enthusiasm for overconfidence, and it was unfair.
As January rolled into February, I spent considerable time each day in meetings with the team as we sought to develop the program and plan for the future. The time had come to choose Mubarak’s successor, and all hands were on deck. As I was travelling during the first round of interviews, Mubarak was entrusted with coordinating the interviews alongside some colleagues. The first indication I received that things had not quite gone well was when I received a message from a faculty member that they were concerned about some questions which had been asked during the interviews. I investigated further and during an extensive conversation, it became apparent that Mubarak had attempted to carry out the interview the way he thought I would have done it; he asked some tough questions and attempted to create a fairly hostile environment to potentially unsettle the candidates. My colleague said to me that perhaps Mubarak had built his entire conception of leadership on what he had observed me do and I had an obligation to help him correct course. I was not shocked, but humbled; by that time, I knew that Mubarak could recite entire swathes of my speeches from YouTube, that he saw me as a great role model, and that he really wanted me to be proud of him. What I had not realized was just how closely he was building his life in my mould, and that was the second leadership lesson that Mubarak taught me: Everything that I say and do is being observed, and someone is following very closely in my footsteps. I personally coordinated the next set of interviews and things were a lot more measured; everything was fine again.
As we rang in the month of March, I ensured that I let Mubarak know how proud I was of him; he presided over the largest and most successful conference which we had organized and he deserved full credit for it. He cast the image of a distinguished team leader and lived up to the hype of being the first former delegate to return to lead the conference. His ALAMAU journey had come full circle, but there was one last card to be played. In his final week at the Academy, I was honoured to have been invited to attend his thesis presentation during which he spoke at length about his many vulnerabilities; he spoke about physical challenges, emotional challenges, dealing with loss, struggling to fit in, and deep-seated concerns about his reputation. He credited me with being a huge influence on his life, but in that moment, all I could think about was the fact that there were many things about Mubarak’s life that I knew nothing about. In spite of the fact that I had known him the longest of any member of his class, I still knew very little about him; I realized that I had been so blinded by the need to get things done that I had missed an opportunity to really know the person behind the work. And that is the third leadership lesson that Mubarak me: Invest as much in the individual as you do in their work.
I am very thankful to Mubarak Adetunji for the unrivalled privilege of being able to invest in another person’s growth as much as I have in mine. Words do not suffice to express my gratitude for what these three years have meant to me; I know that Mubarak will go on to achieve great things, and that the experiences we have shared will last us both a lifetime. Leadership is indeed a lifelong journey, and I am humbled to be able to learn from those whom I teach.
This article is part of a series, detailing my reflections on some of the people who have shaped and continue to shape my leadership journey. Read about my encounters with Khesa Borotho here.