Resilience – in Leadership, and in Friendship
In 2014, I participated for the first time in the Mandela Washington Fellowship. I was assigned to host Dr. Pierre Balamou, a physician from Guinea, who would be with me for the Professional Development Experience (PDE) of the Fellowship at my office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Pierre and I shared welcome messages as he prepared for his Leadership Institute at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Soon after, however, he told me that he would not be able to participate in the PDE. He was starting a new job with the Peace Corps. He needed to return to Guinea immediately after the Summit.
Nonetheless, given our growing correspondence, we agreed that he would visit for a weekend. So, in early July, just after my 60th birthday, Pierre took the train from Baltimore to Philadelphia. He joined me and my wife for dinner with friends on Friday evening. On Saturday and Sunday, he and I toured sites in Philadelphia. We spent a day at the Jersey shore. He also met my daughter who, at the time, was a medical student living at home.
As we walked and talked, we connected. I was impressed by how he had managed the challenges of his life, surmounted them and had become the accomplished person he was. He was, as he later told me, taken by my willingness to listen to him, to entertain his questions about anything and simply to spend my time with him.
The Ebola epidemic hit Guinea at the end of that summer. I was worried about Pierre returning home. I offered to have him stay longer in the U.S. at our house. I realize now it was an expression of the growing attachment I felt for him. He laughed, thanked me and said he would be fine going home. He was.
Over the years, Pierre and I continued our relationship through messaging, phone calls and emails. We shared pictures, stories, current events and other news – both serious and silly. And we marked each other’s life events. He got married. He and his wife had a daughter. Two of my children got married. I learned French.
There were difficult times in which we supported each other. Me supporting him in a perilous ethical situation at a job. Him supporting me through an emotionally upsetting family matter.
I told him that when I turned 65 I would come to visit him in Guinea. So, in October 2019, my wife and I flew to Conakry. We spent time with Pierre and his wife and family. We toured Conakry, Île de Roume, and Soumba. We visited his home, his friends and neighbors. But more important than anything in particular we did, we were together.
It is difficult to describe our relationship at this point. It is a mix of many things: friends, professional colleagues, brothers, father-son. Or, as Pierre’s wife says, rolling her eyes, “vous êtes des conspirateurs!”
I know that Pierre is incredibly grateful for the professional guidance I have given him and the self-confidence I have helped him build. But, I am equally grateful. I participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for 2 more years as a PDE Host Supervisor and received a Reciprocal Exchange award. I continue to provide mentorship to other young African professionals. But perhaps more important than all of this, as I have told him, I feel that Pierre has made me a better person.
It is only fitting, therefore, that when asked to introduce this course on resilience I chose to do it with Pierre. We have both seen each other’s resilience and resourcefulness being together in the U.S. and in Guinea. The tremendous value of international travel and connections is that it takes one out of one’s comfort zone. It forces one to learn how to be true to oneself in a strange environment, and in the process to discover who one truly is.
Dr. Paul R. Sachs is Executive Director of Merakey – Philadelphia, part of a multi-state, U.S. nonprofit serving individuals with mental illness, substance disorders, and intellectual disabilities. He is also a licensed psychologist and independent consultant providing program development, training, and mentoring. He has over 35 years of experience in nonprofit management and psychology. Dr. Sachs has published two books and other articles in the fields of rehabilitation psychology and corporate social responsibility and governance. He is a board member of a Nigerian NGO and advisor to two African-based start-ups. Dr. Sachs holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and an MBA.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Government.
Fellowship Alumni and selected candidates for 2021 who are interested in learning more about this topic are encouraged to take the Resilient Leadership course, which Paul and Pierre introduce through a moderated discussion, through the Fellowship Portal. Learn more about the course.