My Leadership Journey So Far…

Earlier this month I celebrated five years at MMPWW. I’d like to think that if we weren’t all currently in self isolation and dealing with a global pandemic that there would have been some cake (at the very least!) to mark the occasion. After all, it’s not every day that such a milestone is reached and it gives me pause to stop and reflect.

I’m not someone who usually looks back, preferring to focus on what comes next and how new opportunities can be leveraged. I’m practical, not theoretical as a rule, preferring to go my own way rather than following the pack. I’ve never wanted to be like anyone else, because ‘being different’ affords a perspective few others can identify with, and over the years I’ve used that to my advantage.

You see, I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. As a teenager, I didn’t have time for the traditional modes of learning. Studying was a challenge because I didn’t feel engaged in my surroundings (code for bored) and was restless to examine life beyond the school’s boundaries. I’ve since realised this is a pattern with me; I can’t sit still for long because there is always something new to discover, or new connections to be made that can broaden my horizon further.

Objectively speaking, I’m sure my 16-year-old self was a bit of a nightmare. In the beginning, I was rejected for a few opportunities, joining the Model UN amongst them, because my grades weren’t good enough, despite excelling in other areas. At one point I was Lebanon’s premier sandwich vendor, selling my mother’s (excellent) sandwiches to hungry school kids for a profit. That venture lasted a week, but it was the start of my entrepreneurial spirit coming to the fore.

Traditional schooling just wasn’t for me; a truth further emphasized by me failing every class and being dropped down a grade, which as anyone will tell you, doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. Still, I did what any other teenager would do (brooded at first) but then I decided to dig my heels in, enroll in a new, more forward-thinking school and try and approach learning from a different perspective.

For me, this was the turning point. I may not have fitted in there, but here I could be myself. I could allow myself to think creatively and be among like minded people. Not long after this, I was selected to go to New York. Out of 800 students, they chose just six kids to represent Lebanon and I was among them. You can imagine the excitement and anticipation that came with this opportunity. I would be interacting with different students from all walks of life and all with different ambitions to mine. It was like someone had zapped me with a bolt of energy. If starting a new school was the crossroads for me in terms of gaining confidence, then this trip was to clarify my purpose in life, to give me some direction and inspire me on a course of action that would go on to change everything.

Something else you should know about me is that I’m inquisitive. I like to ask questions, I want to hear your opinion. It isn’t enforced politeness on my part – it’s me genuinely being interested. So, during this NY trip, I did just that and began to engage with other students, hearing their ambitions, noting their future plans. In Brooklyn one day, it struck me how different this was to my peers back home. There was a hunger and a passion that I hadn’t come across before. They had big dreams and they were going to make them happen, one way or another.

Prior to that visit, I don’t think I ever truly knew what I wanted to do; few of us are blessed with that kind of self-awareness at that age. Still, I wanted to see how this compared with my peers in Lebanon and I found their answers driven primarily by a need to please their parents. I was exceptionally fortunate that my mother realised early on that I needed to find a different path and gave me the freedom to do just that, but even so, It’s easy to fall into a pattern of doing what’s expected of us, with little consideration for what will actually fulfill us later on in life.

Once upon a time there was a belief that to secure a top job you needed to get the best grades and study at the top institutions. Now of course, this is no longer so black and white; there’s a grey area that’s allowing forward-thinkers, rulebreakers, inventors and rebels to have their moment in the spotlight.

It was crystal clear to me, even back then, that mindsets needed to change. There needed to be a platform that could morally develop students, to teach them the soft skills that would allow them to achieve more. So, at 18, I decided to create such a platform and founded ‘Kid Squad’, which later became ‘Think Up!’, and for the first time ever, I had a goal and vision to work towards.

I worked with psychologists who trained other volunteers on how to communicate effectively with students, how to listen and inspire them in a way that would resonate. Together, we ran workshops and partnered with schools to establish programs that taught the art of negotiation and entrepreneurship. We helped shape their business ideas into pitches. We challenged them to step out of their comfort zone. We effectively helped to change their lives.

For three years, this was my passion, my purpose. I enjoyed being someone that kids could relate to. At its core, Think Up! was all about students helping other students, about creating role models that the kids could connect and identify with. Over the years it’s become clearer to me that this new generation can’t be herded in one direction – they are actively seeking new opportunities that will give them a better life overall. I saw this first-hand with Think Up! in Lebanon, and over the last decade this mentality has continued to thrive.

This business was my first real (not counting the black market sandwich venture) foray into entrepreneurship, and I know it won’t be my last. Think Up! gave me a way to channel my hunger into a viable enterprise and it helped me discover my passion for being a mentor. I’ve never lost sight of this, despite now working in a corporate environment. To my mind, it’s never been more important to inspire the next wave of talent to break down barriers and find a new pathway to success.

When I hire now, I actively look for the misfits of the business world. Those that embrace life and experience everything they can. Education is important, and it would be hypocritical for me to say otherwise given I’m currently doing my Global Executive MBA at Hult International Business School, but to me, it’s about how you make it work for you. We’re all so used to working in silos that we forget sometimes to look up and see what is right in front of us. I could have easily been written off and gone down a different route, but with the right encouragement and ambition, I carved my own niche and set of rules to live by.

The moral here is don’t judge a book by its cover. Flick through a few pages, take a risk and who knows, maybe we’ll all be better off in the long-run.

by Nader Bitar, Deputy GM MMPWW