May Rihani, A Woman Leader

By May Rihani

March 16, 2012   |   0 comments


On March 13 at the National Press Club, Creative University launched its Center for Women’s Leadership in International Development, which supports women around the world to realize the positive change they seek by promoting women’s leadership in international development and highlighting the contributions women leaders make to effective and sustainable development.

At this event, Creative University presented the first Creative Leadership Award to May Rihani for her outstanding leadership and dedication to girls’ education and women’s empowerment. After an introduction of Ms. Rihani’s accomplishments, given by her former colleague Greg Niblett, she gave an exceptional acceptance speech reflecting on what leadership means. Continue reading for her whole speech!

Thank you.

To have Charito Kruvant and Greg Niblett offer me the first leadership award of the Center for Women’s Leadership in International Development is a true honor. I am very appreciative of this tribute.

Yesterday, I was reflecting on what leadership means and what I have learned through my years of experience in international development. What came to mind are some key dimensions of leadership. These are not the only elements of leadership, but I believe key ones.

First, a leader must have a vision, be able to articulate that vision clearly, be utterly committed to it, and be able to help others embrace it and make it their own.That capacity of ensuring alignment between one’s vision and helping others make that vision their own is what makes someone a real leader.

Second, a leader must be able to motivate and mobilize others – in particular those who stand to benefit from the vision, or who can help others benefit from it. To mobilize others is an art and a science, once someone perfects that skill, she or he are close to the top of the leadership ladder.

Next, I strongly believe a leader must practice active listening. While it may not be an easy skill to master, active listening is an important condition of leadership. Active is the key word here. Active listening requires the ability to set aside your agenda and concerns and open yourself to listen very carefully to what is being communicated to you. Active listening is about immersing yourself in a new context, a new framework, and a new mindset and then reconnecting the new information with a broader agenda. Once that is done, you are able to align your objectives with new concerns. No doubt a hard skill, but once mastered, leadership becomes easier to attain.

Fourthly, one cannot be a leader without empowering others. It is an act based on self confidence, and an act that makes continuity and sustainability possible. Empowering others creates a path that reaches the goals, or creates a movement that no one can stop.
Finally, the above dimensions still need the glue to bring all the elements of leadership together. That glue is compassion. Through compassion a leader will discover the energy to translate her vision into a plan, that plan into the plan of others, and the collective plan into action.

I thought I will share with you one example of my work where some elements that I learnt about leadership were utilized.

In 1993, while at Creative Associates, I was asked to understand and analyze why girls’ education in all of Afghanistan, other than Kabul, was only at 2.7% — the lowest percentage anywhere of girls going to school at that time.

Dressed in a Chadoor, (but leaving my face uncovered), I met with the arch-conservative and bearded men of the Afghan rebel forces’ shadow ministry of education during the civil war. We met in Peshawar, for four days, while I worked to get them to help me understand the situation concerning girls’ education. Believe me, I listened very actively.

Many explanations were given that were not convincing. For example, they said: the Soviets have declared war on us and we cannot send our daughters to school, bombs falling on schools might kill them. I asked: So you value the lives of your daughters more than the lives of your sons? They quickly recanted this theory. They offered other straw dog explanations, but they were equally unconvincing. For four days, they seemed at a loss as to how to explain the 2.7%, and I continued to listen. Finally, one of them said: We do not send our daughters to school because of our religion, the mullah tells us not to send them to school.

Now we were getting somewhere. This was my opportunity. Being versed in Arabic and being knowledgeable about Islam, I quoted a sentence from the Hadith, the collected sayings of Prophet Mohammed.

“Education is the responsibility of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman.” I asked, who is more important, the mullah or the Prophet? To make a long story short, we discussed this at length and, as a result, they allowed me to design for them, and with them, the home schools for girls.

Yesterday, recalling this event from 1993, made me think of my whole career and the leaders with whom I worked: my father Albert Rihani, my first development teacher Maurice Gemayel, and my first American boss and mentor Warren Wiggins.

I have also been privileged to work with leaders such as Charito Kruvant, Greg Niblett, and others.

I thought of many world leaders who have inspired me and remembered the voices of some of these leaders:

The Dalai Lama who said: “Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury. Without it, humanity cannot survive.”

Eleanor Roosevelt stated: “Where … do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”

Mahatma Gandhi taught us: “We must be the change we wish to see.”

The work of true leaders withstands the test of time. True leaders like these dedicate their lives to their vision. Their hard work and ability to endure when it would have been far easier to lay down their efforts – and their constant optimism that a better world can be achieved– is a measure of their contribution.

I wish us all, each and every one, a vision that drives us, a dedication that keeps propelling us forward, and a constant positive outlook that makes us recognize that we can make a difference in this word.

Thank you for honoring me with this leadership award. I see that its true value is its recognition of the importance of girls’ education and women’s empowerment to achieve equality between genders.

– May Rihani (March 13th 2012)