What is your definition and approach to leadership? What qualities do you see a leader embodying? Leadership is a loaded word that means different things to different people. At only 30 years of age, Jeannine Umutoniwase has risen through the ranks to become the CEO of Azizi Life. Before I asked her what she is learning about leadership, I wanted to know something of her story, and how she got to where she is today. We sipped African chai (‘icayi’ in Kinyawanda) in a garden humming softly with a medley of insects and birds. A combination of dust from the Sahara and tropical storms over near Madagascar render the Rwandan sky dull and hazy.
I asked Jeannine how she got connected to Azizi Life. “I ran the Food for the Hungry guesthouse in Muhanga, when Tom and Christi came to stay while volunteering,” she told me. Tom and Christi, a Brit and an American respectively, hired Jeannine as a translator and shared their nascent vision of Azizi Life with her. A vital partnership began. Jeannine helped them communicate with local artisans, negotiating prices and helping with product design.
It soon transpired that Jeannine had a lot of potential, and this is something that she relates back to her younger days growing up in Muhanga. “My father encouraged and supported me a lot during school. He saw my potential.” She shuffled in her seat as she took a sip of chai. “I lost my father during the genocide…I sometimes missed school after that.” Jeannine was determined to make something of her life, and sees her faith in God playing a crucial role in that journey.
Positively beaming, she held out her hand and resting atop were two small photos, each displaying an image of her daughters. “When I’m struggling, I look at these photos, and my batteries are refilled. I want to be a role model for them.” Her eldest daughter, Jessica, who is six years old, wants to be a Paediatric doctor when she is older; she has said this to her mum numerous times. “She wants to get 100% in every subject, and she never wants to miss a day of school.” Jeannine’s pride was palpable, as she explained how thankful she is for her determined and ambitious daughter.
Jessica had a very precarious beginning, which throws such determination into even sharper relief. During pregnancy, Jeannine was told by her doctor that the baby was having major problems developing, and that she had two options. “He said that I could either take this very expensive medication every month, or abort the baby…I prayed about it and made up my mind to keep the baby. I trusted God to look after us since He had looked after me in my life.” When Jessica was born following an emergency C-section, they discovered that aside from a minor respiratory condition that would need to be treated for a few years, she was healthy.
I asked her if her daughters have opportunities that she did not have growing up. Leaning forward in her slim black t-shirt covered with a floral jacket, ever the cool and casual CEO, she told me that her school has more resources and better qualified teachers. “I am thankful that she has enough means, for school books and other things to succeed.”
What are the five things that you’re learning about leadership?
- Be humble
Everyone is equal. There is a balance to achieve. I want people to respect me, but I will show respect and consideration to others. I don’t want people to be scared of me! It will make things harder for my colleagues.
I want to hear from others in my team. Their ideas and suggestions will help me to grow and achieve more.
- Be available
I like to be near our artisan partners whenever I can, and if not in person, to be available by phone so that problems can be resolved together. People don’t need to book an appointment a month in advance to see me! I do not want to be the I’m-too-busy-and-important-so-you-will-have-to-wait kind of leader.
- Maintain a hard-working spirit
Although there is a need to delegate at times, I don’t want to sit around and let everyone else do the hard work.
- Be a role-model
Lead by example. Do yourself what you expect others to do. For example, over the Christmas break, some visitors were staying at the Azizi Life guesthouse. The toilets had not been cleaned for a while, and one of our facilitators, who was coordinating their Experience Day had either not checked, or saw this but didn’t think to do anything about it. I just went and got on with cleaning them. I think it made an impact because it showed that nothing is beneath me, or not in my job description. I didn’t need to say anything; my action spoke loudly enough.
‘A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way’ – John C Maxwell
‘He who thinks he is leading and has no one following him is only taking a walk’ – Malawian proverb
‘A large chair does not make a king’ – Sudanese proverb