Psychologists suggest that first impressions snap into place in the first three-to-seven seconds.
Once in place, first impressions are quite difficult to dislodge. For the past ten days, I’ve had the chance to both make first impressions and gather first impressions…and the impressions are of profound awe and hope.
A little over a year ago I began mentoring a university professor who had been appointed to a temporary administrative position. He wanted to learn how to become a servant leader. Each week we would trade emails. He would share with me his frustrations with a corrupt administration, a power-hungry supervisor, even the deplorable conditions in his larger community. Each week he feared losing his job and being unable to provide for his wife and child. Each week I would write back, offering tips, strategies, and perspectives; sometimes just a sympathetic ear.
A couple of months ago, I sat down to open another email and was surprised and delighted to read his announcement that his temporary position had been made permanent. He was now the permanent Vice Rector for Academic Affairs and had several department heads of his own to supervise. I wrote back to congratulate him on his success and suggested that, in light of his new responsibilities, I would fully understand if he no longer had time for mentoring and coaching. His response was immediate: I need your coaching now more than ever. In fact, he asked if I would be willing to help his new direct reports learn these principles of servant leadership we had been working on for the past year. Not long after that, I was on an airplane to a place I had only read about: Herat, Afghanistan.
The scope of my mission had increased in the intervening weeks between the email exchange and wheels up. In addition to coaching meetings with my mentee, his team and others, I also co-led a four-day workshop on servant leadership for 40 participants of the programs of the Institute for Leadership Development, a three-day workshop for 40 women who led various departments in the Afghan government, and a half-day workshop for the faculty and staff of Jesuit Worldwide Learning’s Herat office. It was an active week that left me physically and mentally exhausted. My hosts, knowing that this was my first trip to Afghanistan, repeatedly asked, “What are your impressions?”
My impressions are these: There is a palpable energy towards positive change in the young leaders of Afghanistan. With 70% of the population being under the age of 30, most of my participants were in their mid-to-late20s and they were impatient with the old ways, the old corruption, and with lingering bouts of fighting between inept government officials and Taliban agitators. The young people want jobs and access to advanced education. They want a secure future for their young families. Many are starting or thinking about starting their own business or non-governmental organization and are hungry for direction and support. As one young man said to me, “We wish to switch from being a nation of weapons and war to a nation of pens and peace.” The Afghan government women’s group made it clear that they wanted to take their rightful place as equals with their male counterparts. In a passionate speech, which she later shared with me in writing, one administrator said in part, “We are women with quite different destinations. We grew up in the middle of war, between challenges, at the heart of violence, discrimination, and exclusion. Now we want to know…how do we pass from this situation successfully?” These are baby steps on a trip that will take generations to complete. I am awestruck.