We talk about self-awareness; countries also go through self-awareness.
Sepideh Keyvanshad serves as the Mission Director for USAID/Nepal. A career development professional, Sepideh has worked within the US Government in various roles including the Department of State and the National Security Council, and as a Foreign Service Officer with USAID since 2000. She has been posted overseas with USAID in Afghanistan and El Salvador and has served with international and non-governmental organisations in Russia and Haiti.
Sepideh has broad experience working with and across development and government institutions, and her career has focused on supporting governance efforts as well as institutional and organisational change around the world. She holds a MS degree in strategic studies from the National War College, and Juris Doctor degree from the University of Illinois College of Law, and speaks Farsi and Spanish.
Ujeena Rana spoke to Keyvanshad to learn her views on leadership. Excerpts:
What areas has USAID Nepal been working on in Nepal?
This year, we are celebrating 70 years of relationship between the US Government and Development Assistance from the US Government to Nepal. And in those 70 years, we have been working on everything -health, education, economic development and environment. Throughout the years, USAID has pretty much worked in almost all sectors and the way we have done our work has also evolved; moving from direct service delivery to strengthening systems of the government, working with civil society groups, working with governance issues, and we have done a lot of work in terms of for e.g. eradicating malaria, HIV Aids.
We are just starting implementation of our new five-year strategy. And within that, we are involved in democracy and governance, disaster risk reduction, resilience and reconstruction, health and education, food security and natural resource management energy. One of the things is that our government has had a very good relationship with Nepali government and that really helps with our Congress to be able to continue to provide support to Nepal.
A lot of what we did in the past year was responding to Covid 19. When the pandemic hit, our Mission got working very quickly to provide assistance under the health sector, but also in education, helping the Ministry of Education help students continue to learn; also providing economic assistance because a lot of people were losing their jobs and not being able to take care of their families. So we started providing small grants through some of our programs, many of them going to women.
What are the challenges of working in the development field?
I think there is a lot. The key thing that a Development Agency tries to do is to change the way things have been done. It really tries to go against the grain of how societies were run, how they are managing themselves, how institutions run in order to make them effective. And we obviously focus on science and data when we work on health and education and we bring in a lot of concrete things. But at the same time, development requires a different way of thinking, it requires a different way of managing interests, it requires a different way of managing power. And I think that is the really difficult part of doing development because you are helping move a society in a direction that is different and there are interests that have been there for decades and centuries. Pushing against that and trying to move different people at different times is what is really difficult. And that’s in any country; this is not just in countries where USAID works. It is pretty much all over the world where you try to make change. It is very difficult to go against what others have been doing for a long time.
I think part of the other challenge is as someone who has been a foreign service officer and has moved from country to country, it’s difficult, but also the more interesting part of doing the work is that you go to different places, you spend time getting to know the context, getting to know the country and its people, really figuring out how that society moves, and how it behaves and what motivates it and what are its incentives. It can be challenging but it’s also incredibly fulfilling because you learn so much and it expands your perspective as a human being, at the very best.
What are the things that inspire you to work as the Mission Director to USAID Nepal?
I wake up every day inspired and I keep saying this—I absolutely love my job. I wake up every morning realising how lucky I am. What truly inspires me is the realisation that I have an amazing opportunity and privilege to create this environment and space for other people to come in and do better for themselves and do better for their families, neighbours, communities and countries because in some ways, I see my role not as a doer but as an enabler. I have this incredible privilege of having the resources of my country to be able to go in and do that. To bring in different voices, different experiences, to give opportunities to people who may not have had that before and it goes back again to being able to push against those challenges of development I talked about of moving a society in a different way by bringing in people who were not participating in making those changes. So for me, the older I get and the more I do this, it really inspires me every day to be able to do that.
What do you consider your most significant accomplishment with USAID Nepal?
My own sense of personal accomplishment has really evolved as I have gotten older and as I have done this longer. Had you asked me my personal accomplishments ten years ago, I would have said, let me tell you what I, Sepideh have accomplished. At that point, it was about me and my accomplishments. For me, that’s not the case anymore. Because the more I do this, the more I realise and the more I like the fact that it’s not about me. It’s what I can help other people accomplish. So my personal biggest accomplishment in many ways is having that recognition. The more I become successful in taking myself out of the equation – that is my accomplishment.
As far as the USAID is concerned, the biggest accomplishment has been the relationships it has allowed the people of my country to build with the people of Nepal; being able to dig into the smallest communities and to not just build relationship with one layer but between different layers and we are trying to get even below those layers. The organisation’s accomplishment is being able to give the people of Nepal the opportunity to realise their own worth, their own potential, power and their own solutions to their own problems while giving resources to be able to do that. For me, it’s not what the US government is doing for you or what Nepal is doing for you, it is how we are creating a relationship between our two countries and our communities for all of us to solve these problems together.
Though Women’s History Month is behind us, discourses around women empowerment and women in power position are an ongoing process. It was interesting to see that the appointment of Kamala Harris as the Vice President of the United States was taken as no less than a celebration. You being in an important position – what do you think ‘women in the power position’ entails?
I think, for me, women in power entails just that- having a woman in power. It was wonderful to finally, after centuries of having perfectly qualified women, to have a woman Vice-President and for a President to have finally selected one. However, we still have ways to go because the President was elected; she was not elected.
For me having more women in positions of power entails progress; it entails recognition from a wider segment of our world what many of us already knew, which is that women are perfectly capable of doing all these things that we have not allowed them to do, that we have not supported them to do. It is about people’s decisions catching up with the reality of the world of women’s capabilities and women’s experience and their power. I think that is what ‘women in the power position’ entails for me.
What defines a leader?
Anybody can be a leader. You can be a leader in your home; you can be a leader in your community; country and the world. I think in many ways leadership means recognising that you have this power to lead other people, and it comes in many forms. What’s also interesting is that the definition of leadership has also been changing and what people see as a good leader or a capable leader has also been changing and I think that’s a good thing. Certain qualities that were praised or looked for in leaders were not necessarily the best. And there were certain qualities that I think do make good leaders, those were not being recognised. As I see the progression of my own career in the past 20 something years and as I look at people in my own organisation, my own country or people around me who have been leaders or who have had positions of authority I see the definition of leadership and leaders changing.
My first job at USAID I had a boss, I have actually gone through many of these bosses whose definition of leadership was about exerting power; it was about exerting your authority, and it was about your image as a leader and generally it was a man. Generally, it was a man who we were a little bit afraid of, and they were not afraid to come to a meeting and having everyone being afraid of them, and that was perfectly acceptable at some point.
On the other hand, coming to a meeting and showing your emotions was not really accepted, except for anger… anger was acceptable. And I think that is changing and I believe that is a good thing. Going into a meeting and showing your humanness is okay and going into a meeting as someone who is leading that meeting and kind of being okay telling people ‘I don’t know the answers; let’s do this together’ has been okay.
I don’t need to go into a situation where people think that I have all the answers. Besides, bringing more of your outside work persona into your work is also becoming more accepted. These are some of the things that I see changing. I think we are still figuring that out, I think men are figuring that out, I think women are figuring that out. I think men are probably trying to figure out how do they bring those other parts to themselves that they were not allowed to bring in. We as women are also figuring out how to bring those qualities, those that were called unprofessional and unacceptable by the society.
There are a lot of people around the world who are really good leaders. In terms of qualities that makes someone a good leader: s/he can’t make it about them. If your leadership is about you, that makes you a selfish leader and I don’t believe that that person really connects with the others. So first of all, to be a leader you have to be able to come out of yourself and your own interests and what does it mean to you or what does it do for you. The other thing is, someone who can connect not just with the people but to the situations that they find themselves in, because situations are different and it requires different ways of dealing.
I worked in Afghanistan for a long time. It was a high profile job and I had to make decisions at the drop of a hat. There were often dangerous situations. People, including our implementers, were literally dying. It required me to work in a certain way which is very different from the way I work here. I think being a good leader is about being able to connect with people, but also being able to connect with situations so that you can determine what is needed by the situation and by the people at that particular time. Being a good leader is about being able to adapt yourself. In some ways, you have to become a chameleon but in a good way so that you can understand and feel the situation and the reality to it.
A good leader should realise that it is not about you but you have to know yourself. You have to know what you don’t do well and you have to figure out what to do with that. Sometimes that means bringing other people who do those things well that you don’t do well. You become more humble since you recognise that you are not perfect and that you don’t do everything well so you don’t expect perfection necessarily from everyone and that also allows you to work as a team.
Anybody who embodies your definition of good leadership?
For me when I think about that, it is not Presidents or people from history. It is about a former boss I had at USAID and it was a man, and he was the kindest, most thoughtful person. Everyone loved working with him. In some ways, he lit up the room when he walked in. I knew I always had to know my stuff when I walked into the office to brief him but I also knew that I always walked away having learnt. I was briefing him but I would always walk away learning from him at the same time. Every time I think about the kind of boss I want to be, he is the person who is always stuck in my mind. He was kind, thoughtful, smart but he took care of his people also.
What does America as a global leader signify to its own people and to world at large?
It is not a surprise to anyone that the US has been going through a difficult time, especially in the past year. We have been going through a lot as a country, as a government, as people in different parts of the US, as just individuals and families. We have been trying to make sense of what this means to us individually and as a community. Some of us are having a difficult time talking to each other and figuring out how we could reduce the divide internally within our own country. There are these fault lines internally within the US that some knew, some felt, and some did not feel as much so as to address it. Moreover, what we are going through internally, obviously, has been viewed by the rest of the world.
But like individuals, countries also go through different phases and different stages and for the US and its people the good thing – the positive thing – among the many not so positive things that have happened is that there is a stronger recognition of some of the issues we have to deal with as a country. This, in many ways, has made us more self-aware as a country now and this impacts our internal domestic policies, which ultimately impacts our foreign policy.
Therefore, I do think that the US still has a key leadership role to play in the world. At the same time other countries are going through their own phases and their own stages of development and evolution. So, the question is: how does the US play the leadership role vis-à-vis other countries?
We did go through a very difficult period and it really was a shock to many of us what happened in January. We are still absorbing what happened. But I am optimistic that we are learning from what happened and we are going to use that learning and put it to good use to deal with issues that our own country is facing. At the same time, we are also committed towards working with other countries who are dealing with similar problems in many ways and carving a way forward.
When do leaders know when to hang up their boots?
We have lots and lots of people in positions of power where they should hang up their boots. But that’s different from leadership. I don’t think anyone necessarily needs to hang up their hats or boots at any time when it comes to leadership. I think leadership evolves. The question is: when do you as an individual transition from one type of leadership to another type of leadership because leadership is not just about being a CEO of a company or being the President of a country. You can play different leadership roles. So the question is: at which point are you better off leaving a specific leadership position, a position of authority, a position of power and then transitioning to a different one where you can play a different type of leadership role?
Speaking about myself, I am already thinking about when is it a good time for me to leave my position or my agency or to leave what I do and then move into a space where I am better suited, because what happens when people stay in a position too long is they sometimes become less effective and at the same time they are hoarding the space that others could actually come in and bring in new, fresh, innovative ideas and they are not giving the opportunity to do that. So part of our job as a leader is to vacate that space and to allow others to come in and do their own way of leadership and fill that space with their ideas.