Social Impact Course: GMC takes leadership lessons from Rwanda

Wharton Executive MBA Professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, designed the global modular course, “Conflict, Leadership and Change: Lessons from Rwanda,” as a case study for students to learn about both failed and transformational leadership.She recently returned from Rwanda where she and Eric Kacou, a Wharton MBA alumnus and entrepreneur who grew up in Africa, taught 29 Wharton students, including 13 from the EMBA programs in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

GMC Rwanda

How did you come up with the idea for a global modular course in Rwanda?

When I first travelled to Rwanda as a tourist nearly three years ago, I was very lucky to connect with several Rwandans who were open in sharing their experiences with me. We had long, intense conversations and they gave me a deeper and more personal understanding of the horror and magnitude of the genocide there. And, at the same time, these conversations gave me an appreciation for the remarkable progress the country has made in the last 19 years and the sense of hope Rwandans now have.

These conversations sparked my fascination with and engagement in Rwanda and left me pondering a number of compelling questions: How can a country as peaceful and orderly as Rwanda is today have experienced a genocide in which nearly a million people were killed in a three-month period? How does a country that was essentially a failed state become one of the fastest growing economies in the world? How can we understand Rwanda’s past and explain its progress? Ultimately, I concluded that Rwanda had a great deal to teach our students about conflict, leadership, and change and this became the focus of the course.

GMC Rwanda2

What do you want students to take away from the course?

Fundamentally, I hope that students take away four lessons from the course. The first is that it’s important to check our assumptions. We make a lot of assumptions without even knowing we are doing so. Rwanda challenges our assumptions. One arrives in Kigali and sees the verdant beauty of the country, the development, and the cleanliness. There is no litter anywhere and, of course, this is not what most of us expect to see in a third-world country.  Rwanda shows us how inaccurate our preconceptions may be.

Second, I want students to gain an in-depth appreciation of Rwanda’s history and progress. Rwanda is a small country. One can learn quite a lot about the country’s history and its current practices, policies, and leadership even during a short trip. So I see learning about Rwanda as an end in itself. Each country in Africa is different, so it’s not that one can generalize from Rwanda to other countries in Africa. Nevertheless, Rwanda provides a valuable introduction to Africa.

Third, I want students to grasp the leadership lessons that Rwanda teaches. The genocide can be traced back to failed, deeply malevolent and immoral leadership. The current recovery reflects the influence of strong and effective leadership.  Following the genocide, Rwanda’s leaders rewrote the constitution, in many ways designing a country like the founders of a startup craft their company’s strategy, culture, and operations. Rwanda offers powerful lessons about communication, vision, empowerment, goals, metrics, accountability and more. We teach these concepts in the classroom, of course. But, they are very, very vivid in Rwanda.

Finally, I hope the class inspires students to think about their own values and potential impact on the world. When you see what leadership has done in Rwanda for bad and for good, you have to consider what you are doing with your leadership skills and the type of impact you will make.

To read the full interview with Klein, visit the Wharton MBA for Executives blog. Originally published July 15, 2013.