Where leadership and education are concerned, the name Ejaj Ahmad is most likely to surface; having established the nonprofit organization BYLC (Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center) back in 2009, Ejaj has trained more than 3,000 high school, college, and university students over the past nine years. Among them are Queen’s Young Leader, Global Shapers of the World Economic Forum, founders of nonprofits, Bangladesh Civil Service cadres, young leaders in Bangladesh Navy and Army, entrepreneurs and professionals who are making a contribution in diverse industries in Bangladesh. With BYLC, Ejaj has challenged the status quo and made society recognize that leadership education is a necessity for young people in order to be successful in today’s fast-changing world. Through BYLC, he introduced the first of its kind leadership institute to the country, therefore enabling individuals to tap into their full potential.
Instilling Leadership Qualities
I believe that leadership can be learned and it can be taught. The world we live in today is evolving rapidly. The most important skill to grow and excel in today’s complex world is to have the capacity to diagnose problems, think critically, communicate well, and mobilize others for action. These are the leadership skills that we teach at BYLC using our own experiential curriculum. Leadership is about doing. Therefore, in addition to theoretical aspects of leadership, our curriculum also focuses on practical application of leadership by giving students the opportunity to run experiments and take ownership of collective problems in our communities
Academic Performance VS Skills Development
I think both skills and GPA matter. GPA is important because it acts as a signal to the employer. An employer does not have several months to work with a potential recruit, trying to figure out her/his capabilities before making a recruitment decision. Therefore, employers use GPA to signal capability—to gauge a potential recruit’s intelligence, learning capacity, and ability to work hard. However, potential hires just based on GPA also has its limitations, as it’s not an accurate reflection of academic ability in the present context of Bangladesh’s education system. You may have GPA 5, but it may mean very little, especially in an environment where exam question papers are leaked on a regular basis. Secondly, the education curriculum in Bangladesh primarily relies on rote learning. Rote learning is not effective in today’s context because knowing the information is not enough today and it is also not an advantage. Anyone with internet connectivity can access information. The critical skill for the 21st century, therefore, is the ability to synthesize, analyze, and use the information to make decisions.
These critical thinking skills are not fostered in our schools, colleges, and universities. As part of our work, we regularly engage with employers from different sectors and they tell us all the time that there is a significant disconnect between what they are looking for and what the universities in Bangladesh teach. Employers want communication, leadership, and critical thinking skills and our next generation must find a way to equip themselves with these skills.
The Importance of Creativity
With education being divided into business and science, arts and creativity always take a backseat. Higher education today puts a disproportionate importance on business education. Just walk into any university and see the number of students studying BBA and the number of students studying art, philosophy, or history. I believe that the purpose of education is not just to earn a living. There is nothing wrong with pursuing business education or focusing on livelihood, but I think that should not be the only focus. The purpose of education also has to be the enlightenment of the mind and for this holistic development, one needs to have a broad education, which includes art, music, literature, history, along with business and science education. If BYLC could design the national curriculum, we would have a three-pronged approach.
First, to future proof the next generation and to ensure the broad intellectual development of children, we would include curriculum on coding, math, and science along with equal emphasis on art and music. Imagination and creativity are what will differentiate humans from robots in the future so teaching our children how to solve problems creatively is imperative.
Second, the current educational curriculum is heavily dependent on lecture-based learning with a minimum engagement of the learner. We would ideally like to provide a lot of content online (or in tabs where internet is not available) and use the classroom to facilitate discussions and provide experiential learning opportunities for students.
Third, in today’s age of social media, it’s easy to lose interpersonal connections. Children today have 1,000 friends on social media but not five friends with whom they can share their feelings in real life. We would promote action-based learning whereby we would take students to the community and have them design and deliver a service project that would have a social impact. This will help instill empathy and a sense of agency in children. More importantly, it’s crucial for us to help our children build real relationships and have real conversations, outside of the addictive world of social networks.
Making Space for Failure
Leadership is about running experiments. You don’t have a script while leading, so you have to improvise along the way. And no one gets it right all the time. Failure is inevitable. What determines your long-term success, then, is your capacity to tolerate failure and learn from it. Failure also gives us space and time to reflect. You don’t usually reflect when you’re successful; you don’t pause and ask why you succeeded. But when you fail, you pause, reflect and try to understand why things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to. Therefore, failure can serve as a powerful learning experience.
At BYLC, in each of our leadership courses, students are asked to bring a ‘leadership failure case’ to class. They diagnose their case with their peers in small groups. This exercise helps them learn that leadership is both about action and reflection. One without the other is not useful. Life is too short to make all the mistakes yourself. Therefore, one needs to be prepared not just to learn from one’s failure but also from the failures of others. At BYLC, in our classroom, we not only diagnose our leadership failures but also discuss failures from history and other communities and organizations.
* To learn more about BYLC and its different courses for the youth, you can visit www.bylc.org or get connected on www.facebook.com/youthleadershipcenter.