Leadership starts with self-awareness

Craig V. Johnson is a changemaker and a generalist from South Africa. In 2019, he set out to address the global skills crisis by co-creating the GiLE Foundation in Hungary. In autumn 2021, he joined the NGO Leadership Workshop which positively impacted his perception on NGO leadership and social change. 

In this article you will read about:

– How Craigs foundation addresses the issue of skill development in young people.

– Why it is necessary to learn how to think globally and only then act locally.

Why Craig decided to join the NGO Leadership Workshop and how he benefited from the program.

Photo: Archive of Craig V. Johnson

You consider yourself to be a generalist. What does it actually mean?

Simply put, my background is international and interdisciplinary, and I have various experiences from the private, public and non-profit sector. That said, I’m not necessarily a specialist of one particular discipline or sector, but rather a generalist with broad based knowledge.

I initially started my career as a chartered accountant in South Africa after completing formal education in accounting and finance. However, I also have formal education in applied ethics, international relations and diplomacy, which I completed in South Africa, Hungary and Poland respectively. In 2019, I co-created the GiLE Foundation in Hungary, which is when I started to delve deeper into the education and the non-profit sector. Nowadays, I manage the foundation and my job as the Head of Incubation at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. So, it’s been a continuous but exciting journey of moving between studying different things and working in different environments.

How has this ever-changing study and work attitude influenced you?  

It helped me to embed a lifelong learning mindset, and my ever-changing situation also developed in me an approach to any situation in a more critical, creative or outside-the-box way of thinking. So, when I’m learning new things, I’m automatically thinking about it from different perspectives and about the practicality of things in the real world.

What brought you to founding your own foundation?

I co-created the GiLE Foundation with Dr. Judit Beke in Hungary. We established the organisation as the two of us share a common passion to empower young people and we really want to find ways to support their pursuit for a successful and meaningful life. Many educators around the world, including in Hungary/CEE, know very well that the education system is not particularly fit-for-purpose nowadays, and that young people typically struggle to transition into adulthood and the labour market. So, Judit and I decided to be a part of the solution to help young people and at the same time try to accelerate much needed change in the education sector. 

Photo: Archive of Craig V. Johnson

What does your foundation do to address all these issues?

We try to address these issues through skills development training and summer programmes, by raising awareness about these issues through various advocacy initiatives, as well as through our scientific journal (GiLE Journal of Skills Development) that we publish twice a year, providing a space for PhD students and young professionals.  

One of our flagship initiatives relates to our Changemakers Youth Forum in Budapest during October. The overall aim is to encourage young people to take on a more active role in shaping their future, and we also try to set the stage to crowdsource solutions to social problems that young adults and youth organisations face nowadays. 

Why did you decide to participate in the NGO workshop with such a diverse interdisciplinary background?

I do not have extensive knowledge and experience with the non-profit sector. I believed that there were skills gaps that I needed to fill, and the NGO workshop represented a great opportunity to do so. I also wanted to establish an international network in the NGO sector and meet and learn from some interesting people. 

I also felt I was still experiencing lots of challenges in my foundation, so I needed to gain more insights on best practices that can help me manage them. That said, my aim was to improve on a personal level, and ultimately enable the foundation to grow and flourish down the line. 

How did it go for you? Were your expectations met?

I participated in the NGO workshop during October 2021. I think it went well overall, and I’m glad that I participated. It served as a nice wake up call to re-evaluate how things were operating (or not) in our foundation.

Many topics were covered, and I remember we did self-awareness exercises to get to know and evaluate ourselves better. It served as a great reminder for me that leadership starts with self-awareness. The better you know yourself, the higher the chances you’ll be a better leader. 

I also found it meaningful to learn about the theory on non-profit governance and the personal experiences of the other participants. It certainly sheds light on several areas that I need to focus more on: governance and accountability, internal processes, internal culture, our annual plans, etc. At the time, our foundation was roughly two years old, and we’ve mostly been focusing on getting our initiatives off the ground and building our brand. Now I feel it is time to build on those initial successes and refine and re-evaluate our future. And the NGO workshop definitely impacted my way of seeing it.

Photo: Archive of Craig V. Johnson

Did you get to establish new NGO partners and network?

Yes, indeed. I’ve managed to develop meaningful relationships with at least two people from my group of participants, and I’ve also started to explore meaningful collaborations with one such person between our organisations. At the time, my group was also quite diverse. There were leaders from very young organisations, such as mine, as well as NGOs that were over 10 years old.

What was the topic that caught your attention the most?

Change leadership. 

It’s important to think globally and act locally.  I think the starting point is to first reflect on any social challenge from a holistic and global perspective. That is to say we need to look for and understand how various systems, stakeholders and (international) actors are connected to a particular challenge. We need to understand policies, what has already been done to address a particular problem, and how else one can dismantle the underlying structures that create the social problem in the first place or otherwise maintain the status quo. 

Change leadership provided me with valuable insight in this regard. It’s essentially a thinking framework about how to pursue systems change, and the approach lends itself to developing a solution to a social problem that is more realistic, inclusive, practical, and above all – sustainable. 

Why should other people join the NGO workshop in the future?

All leaders and aspiring changemakers should attend such a workshop, especially young leaders! It’s a great opportunity to broaden one’s mindset and acquire more tools to bring about sustainable social change. Participants can also learn from their peers in the programme, develop new networks, and even explore potential collaborations for later down the line.

At the same time, it is also necessary to point out that you only get out of the programme what you put in. So, I would highly recommend to participants that they reflect on the programme in advance, prepare for the sessions, think about the areas they would like to develop, where their organisation needs improvements, and try to read the materials in advance in order to engage with fellow participants in a more meaningful way. It’s a winning recipe to maximise one’s learning, engagement and fun throughout the programme. 

Author: Simona Lučkaničová