Thembi Zulu envisions bold ambitions to change the world one idea at a time. After partaking in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program, she learned how a trait she once saw as a hindrance was actually one of her greatest strengths.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program invited 25 of 700 emerging civic engagement leaders for a six-week leadership institute hosted at 27 educational institutions across the United States, including the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. During their time at Nebraska, business faculty and staff led sessions with them on business, entrepreneurship and utilizing their strengths. Zulu decided to apply for the program when she noticed a gap in recreational safe spaces between men and women in Zimbabwe she wanted to bridge.
“Men have golf or the pub to go to and close deals. I thought to myself, ‘but where would women go to have a space like that?’ That is what I wanted to build. The idea can't run without expertise and that is why I applied to the Mandela program because I had the end goal, the vision, but how was I going to get there? That is what I wanted to know. How do I make that dream come alive?” Zulu asked herself.
Creating ideas had never been an issue for Zulu, whose ability to spin them out at a dizzying pace comes naturally. However when she began to see her innate talent as a weakness, she fretted over her abilities.
“I was operating from the basement of my strength. Because I am strategic, it came across as bossy or that I could not communicate. It made me feel like I was constantly being abrasive around people and I didn't choose to do it. I started to have self-esteem issues. ‘Am I not able to communicate?’ ‘Is there something wrong with me?’” she said.
Zulu’s mindset soon changed after her and the 24 other Fellows worked with Samantha Kennelly, associate director for the Clifton Strengths Institute at the College of Business as part of the program. Kennelly taught the fellows to harness their strengths and how to stretch them even further.
“I helped Thembi see the power of her ideation. She’s coming up with all these ideas and has this push to be more innovative and change processes. She was able to show she can execute, but it's going to look different than someone with achiever or responsibility as a top strength. Thembi was able to see that her ideation wasn't a negative and that she didn't get energy from executing, but rather she brought the ideas to the team and then how they could move forward and execute on it,” explained Kennelly.
Misperceiving a strength as a weakness is a common issue Kennelly witnesses when working with people. She worked with Zulu to realize her potential in this area.
“Thembi was focused on weakness and that's typical on how we operate as humans and how we interact with one another. It was that shift of focus of weight. These are the gifts I have. This is the power I have and I need to leverage on that,” said Kennelly.
Zulu gained a sense of fulfillment after the five weeks spent learning about her strengths. She looks forward to passing on what she learned at the College of Business and taking it back home to Zimbabwe to share with her peers.
“Learning about my strengths helped heal a lot of things and restore a confidence in me because I was constantly being told you're the loud mouth or you're bossy, those labels that had been placed upon me. It’s not only addressed things before me, but now it's also helped me set a better future and a better plan for me to proceed with my life. Knowing what your strengths are is a great leap to discovering that million dollar question of why are you here,” said Zulu.
To learn more about the Clifton Strengths Institute, visit: https://business.unl.edu/strengths
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a sub-grantee of IREX and is implementing a U.S.-based Leadership Institute as part of the Fellowship.
For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship,visit: yali.state.gov/mwf