Learning about Leadership in Unexpected Places

Wharton students learn from locals in a community meeting outside Kigali.
Wharton students learn from locals in a community meeting outside Kigali.

What does genocide have in common with business? I spent a few weeks puzzling over this concept as I prepared for the Wharton course “Conflict, Leadership and Change: Lessons from Rwanda.” Having taken a course on genocide in high school, I was very attracted to the idea of visiting Rwanda to learn even more. Thus, when I heard about this course offering, I signed up immediately. However, I didn’t really understand what I could learn from studying the Rwandan genocide that would enhance my business knowledge. The simple answer is: a whole lot. In this post, I will explain how the course worked and what I learned from my experience in Rwanda.

The course was comprised of several MBA students, Executive MBA students, and me. I was a bit intimidated by the fact that I was the only undergraduate to be on the trip (and to ever have enrolled in the class), but everyone was very friendly and welcoming to me, which made it easy for me to feel more comfortable. I flew down a few days early with a few MBA students to go on  gorilla and golden monkey treks and to explore western Rwanda. The experience was breathtaking, and gave me a deeper understanding of the country I was about to explore in depth over the rest of the week.

During the course, we spent five days in Kigali, Rwanda intensely studying the genocide, how the leadership in Rwanda helped the country to recover and thrive after the genocide, and what we can leverage from the experiences of the leadership in Rwanda in our own futures as business leaders.

I was pretty excited to spot a wild gorilla!
I was pretty excited to spot a wild gorilla!

These topics seemed very vague to me at first, but upon starting the course, they became much more comprehensible. Before arriving in Rwanda, we read various psychological, economic and historical papers to understand the context of the country we were entering and its history. We conducted phone interviews with reporters and ambassadors who had worked in Rwanda to further deepen our understanding of the country. While in Kigali, we interviewed various Rwandan thought leaders, visited various historical and cultural sites, and reflected upon our conversations through group discussions. Our interviewees included entrepreneurs, genocide survivors, government ministers, the CEO of a national bank, a venture capitalist, and the President of Rwanda. We received a variety of perspectives that provided us a breadth of insight into how Rwanda was able to overcome the obstacles that the post-genocide environment supplied them.

Preparing for an interview with a Wharton student from Rwanda.
Preparing for a meeting in Rwanda.

Through my experience in Rwanda, I learned an incredible amount about human nature and the leadership skills needed to recover and rejuvenate a lost group of people. The genocide in Rwanda was an extreme example of several issues that businesses face frequently, such as the turnover of leadership, uniting members under circumstances where there is a lack of trust in the organization, and overcoming crisis. The innovation and insight that Rwandan leaders have leveraged over the past twenty years since the culmination of the genocide serve as a powerful example of the profound impact that leadership can have in rejuvenating and empowering a group during significant organizational change. Additionally, I learned a lot about myself by taking a big risk and going to Africa with a group of people I didn’t know and delving into a difficult and heavy topic. As one of our instructors told us, studying a topic is like trying to cross a river. You can look at the river, dip your toe in the river, or dive right in. We certainly dove in on this trip. It was an unforgettable experience that would not have been possible without the opportunity that Wharton provided me.

Maxine Winston (Wharton 2014) is from Boston, MA and is studying Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Hispanic Studies at Penn. She is the president of Big Brothers Big Sisters at Penn and serves as a tour guide, a Wharton Peer Advising Fellow, a sister in Sigma Kappa sorority and a Wharton Ambassador. She is passionate about philanthropy and enjoys baking.