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Leading the way: Tunisian fellowship in-country training

June 30, 2014 by Jay Carson

Jay Carson, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at The Cox School of Business, was asked by the Women’s Initiative team to lead the first of five in country trainings for the current class of Tunisian fellows.  He traveled to Tunis, Tunisia for 3 days of training with the fellows and has authored the following blog regarding his account. 


I recently returned from Gammarth, Tunisia, where the 2014 class of Women’s Initiative Fellows gathered for three days of in-country leadership development training.  Nestled on the side of the Mediterranean Sea, Gammarth, located just outside Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, is a place of great natural beauty and a beach lover’s delight.  In addition to being the site of Carthage and the ruins where ancient Rome destroyed the Phoenicians before rebuilding the city, Tunis is also a place where new life continues to rise from the ashes.  Tunisia was the first country to spark the Arab Spring in 2011, and it has recently drafted a new Constitution which is strongly supportive of women's rights.   The country is diligently preparing for upcoming parliamentary and Presidential elections to be held in October and November respectively, which will complete its transition to democracy.  

It was wonderful to reconnect and learn about the various successes and challenges that each of the Fellows have experienced since returning home to Tunisia from their five-week visit to the United States.  Some are undergoing job transitions, others are completing work and school projects, and others are working hard to balance current responsibilities with new initiatives they want to accomplish.  It was evident that this class of Fellows has begun forming strong bonds among themselves, whether through mentoring relationships, involvement in the initiatives of other Fellows, or simply staying in touch and encouraging one another in the leadership challenges they face on a daily basis.

Throughout the three-day training we spent time discussing principles of influence and ways to apply the science of persuasion as a leader.  Building on the research of Robert Cialdini, much of the discussion centered around the principles of liking, reciprocity, and consistency.  Several key insights arose regarding the timing and size of requests (asking for larger needs first, followed by smaller needs), as well as the importance of having others make commitments that are public, active, and voluntary (and written whenever possible).

We wrestled with the challenges of applying these various principles in Tunisian culture, and the role that formal authority can play in a leader’s toolbox.  Ultimately we realized that formal authority can lead to resistance or possibly compliance, but we are not likely to gain full commitment from others unless we use authentic persuasion.  We were reminded of a couplet by Samuel Butler written long ago: “He who complies against his will/ Is of his own opinion still.”

We also spent time learning how to better communicate the vision that we have for our organization or society using principles from the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  Each of the Fellows have identified an action plan to accomplish over the course of their year in the program.  We worked on ways to articulate that vision using language that is simple and concrete and targets the appropriate audience.

Finally, we discussed the challenges of collaborating across different kinds of boundaries, from demographic boundaries such as gender or race, to horizontal boundaries such as functions or departments, or even cultural and geographic boundaries.  Collaboration across boundaries remains one of the most difficult challenges for all leaders in today’s world.  To better inform the conversation surrounding the challenges the Fellows face as women leaders in a historically male-dominated culture, we read and discussed an article by Warren Buffett.  The article reminded us that even as structural boundaries begin to fall for women (such as the right to vote, work, participate in government and leadership), self-imposed boundaries may linger in the minds of women.  One of the great outcomes of the Women’s Initiative Fellowship is the network of women who can support, encourage, and remind one another that there is no dream or vision too great, regardless of boundaries.

I came away from the training inspired by the intelligence, strength, and spirit of this class of Fellows.  They represent the best and brightest hopes for Tunisia.  Despite enduring an authoritarian regime, the challenges of a revolution, and the struggles of building a new democracy, there remains hope that Tunisia can and will continue to grow, learn, and develop into a flourishing democracy.  I believe that these women will play critical roles in leading the way forward.