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A Letter To My Younger Self: 5 Core Principles For Effective Leadership

Dr. Charles Owubah leads Action Against Hunger USA’s executive team in providing leadership and strategic direction.


Leaders benefit from reflecting on the past as a means to plan for the future. In approaching my fourth anniversary as CEO of Action Against Hunger, I decided to write a letter to my younger self as a way to reflect on my journey. I thought back on a pivotal moment just before I left my home in Ghana at the age of 15 to further my education. Since I believe we must lead by example, I’m sharing my letter not only with close colleagues but also publicly, with all of you:

Dear Charles,

As you read this, I imagine you at the kitchen table of our childhood home in Ghana, surrounded by the beauty and hardships of the farm. A life-changing scholarship is about to thrust you into a future you can’t yet imagine. I can picture you well, filled with both the energy of youth and uncertainty about what lies ahead.

I wish I could say life’s questions get easier to answer. They don’t. Yet, with the gift of perspective, here are a few core principles to equip you to rise to nearly any occasion.

Build a strong foundation.

A strong foundation is essential for everything you will do. It may seem cliché, but every body must be well fed and every brain must get the nutrients needed to dream big. Don’t neglect the building blocks of food, water and sleep. Do whatever you can to ensure your brothers and sisters have access to those essential elements, too.

Hold tight to your curiosity. One day, you will earn your Ph.D. at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, a far cry from Takoradi, Ghana. It shows that education can open doors and take you far. Along the way, invest in relationships. Stay in touch with classmates and colleagues. Be a good neighbor. You’ll find great value in investing in the people whose paths you cross.

Seek out broad experiences and perspectives.

Seek out the cultural diversity that thrives not only within Ghana but across Africa—a vibrant continent larger than China, Europe, India and the United States combined. Getting to know Africa can prepare any leader for the future: In 1950, Africans made up 8% of the world’s people. A century later, the UN projects they will account for 25% of humanity and at least 33% of the world’s youth.

Beyond the continent of your birth, travel to the 55 countries that you will one day serve since those billions of voices aren’t always fully heard. Be present with whomever you’re with—from the taxi driver in Washington, D.C., to the farmer in India. Listen to their stories, feel their faith and their fears. Understand what fuels them so you can co-create solutions to challenges together.

Bridge gaps that superficially define and divide us. Learn to collaborate with people who have drastically different worldviews, engaging with leaders in some of the world’s largest companies and smallest towns, with technical experts and young staffers, with celebrities and refugees. Learn from each of them.

Prioritize innovation.

With the confidence of youth, it may be tempting to think you have the answers. Sometimes you will find better answers through new approaches. Don’t assume that what worked yesterday will work tomorrow. Test your assumptions and follow the data.

Balance the benefits of new solutions with the power of scaling evidence-based interventions proven to work. Ask what we don’t yet know, even about age-old issues such as global hunger, and fight for funding for research and innovation.

Invest in others.

Never make the mistake of believing your success is yours alone. Because others invested in the future—digging wells and building roads, funding public education, inventing vaccines—you can look forward to a life of promise.

Sadly, thousands of children die every day due to hunger’s devastating effects. Human worth may be universal, but the chance to live with dignity is not. You have an obligation to change that fact; we all do.

So invest in others. You may never know their names or stories, just as they will not know yours, but you can know that you have done the best you could for them—just as those who came before did for you.

Harness the power of hope and faith.

Find a worthy cause and fight for it. You will know it is worthy when your efforts are making life better for others. There is joy to come from it. Hope, too. Remember that life can be cruel. You will face hardship. When you do, your faith will rejuvenate and sustain you. Your faith will give power and action to your impulse of thought but also joy and hope. Sustaining hope and bringing it to the people you serve will be one of the most important things you do. Why?

According to psychologist C. R. Snyder, hopeful people have three interrelated things in common. First, they have the capacity to establish goals, which provide the direction essential for a better future. Second, hopeful people create multiple paths to reach their goals. When one approach doesn’t work, they can turn to plan B, and then plan C, so they win in the long run. Third, hopeful people persevere, undaunted by obstacles. They learn from setbacks and don’t see them as failures.

Hope is not a strategy, but without hope, no strategy gets far. No vision progresses without the belief that it is possible. Hope involves looking forward to tomorrow—and helping others do the same—equipped with tools and training to put hope into action.

These five principles can shape the leader you will become. Amid life’s daily demands, its joys and struggles, aim high. If you do, as Teddy Roosevelt said, you can be the person "who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly...”

With optimism and faith,

Your future self

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