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Leadership in Development: Three Key Lessons

| 4 Minute Read
Drawing from her decades of experience, President and CEO Susanna Mudge shares her thoughts about key lessons in leadership.

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” — Nelson Mandela

This quote from Nelson Mandela succinctly captures what I have learned to be a critical key to successful leadership. When I look back over my past 35 plus years working in international development, and now as President and CEO of Chemonics, I am reminded how the success of a leader is dependent on trusting others and others trusting me. And, I know, this trust that is placed in a leader, including in me, is a precious commodity that is hard earned and can be easily lost. For that reason, every year, I take stock and look at what is going well, and what I want to build on. Here are three leadership lessons that I have used to gauge my progress:

1. Trusting Others to Perform

To build a strong, performing team, you must communicate and demonstrate that you trust them. I believe in giving others more responsibility and stepping out of the way to allow them the space to grow and learn. I seek out those within the organization that are ready for new challenges – whether they have volunteered themselves, or I’ve seen the potential in them — and encourage them to stretch their comfort zone in a healthy way. Most importantly I have learned that when I don’t trust others to perform I often end up doing their job for them. To avoid this, I am careful to delegate important projects to the right people and try to avoid stretching people beyond what they can do. My role as a leader is to make sure they have opportunities but also the safety net to succeed.

One easy way to earn trust is to show that what others think matters. So, I’m often heard asking, “What do you think?” When it comes to issues, especially those in which they play a regular role, I make sure to ask them what they think, what solutions or ideas they would offer, and how they might do things differently. By asking for their ideas and answers, you show you trust them and value their input.


This trust that is placed in a leader, including in me, is a precious commodity that is hard earned and can be easily lost. For that reason, every year, I take stock and look at what is going well, and what I want to build on.

I learned this lesson many years ago when I took over a struggling project. The team was demoralized, needed clear guidance, and an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. In addition to continuously encouraging them to leave the past in the past and to focus on moving forward, I also quickly identified the key individuals who could help deliver the program. I gave them clear direction, established expectations, and then let them loose. At the same time, I had to make some hard personnel decisions as others were not performing, and I did not have the confidence or the time to see if they could do the job under new circumstances. I recognized quickly that if I did not trust them to do their job, I was going to have to do it for them, since the results needed to be delivered. There was only so much I personally could take on, and thus realized it was better to part ways in a respectful, caring, and transparent manner than try to provide a space for improvement. This approach has been proven time and again to be the correct one.

2. Listening and Hearing

Listening can be an easily overlooked tool but one that when done well creates a safe environment. There have been many studies over the years estimating that we spend anywhere from a third to half our time listening. But the problem is we don’t retain very much. In one study, researchers found that listeners only retained about half what they’d heard immediately after someone finished talking. So, what does this mean as a leader?

Listening creates the space needed to do good work. The purpose of communication is not to message but to engage and this requires listening. For me this means being focused and attentive in all meetings. I make it a point to have my laptop or mobile phone closed during meetings so that everyone knows I am 100 percent present. And I make sure to ask questions, to clarify what I’m hearing or to prompt more discussion. Then, when needed and appropriate, I can provide guidance or my point of view.

Perhaps even more important, I have learned that I cannot listen only to those that agree with me, but I need to actively seek out dissenting opinions and thoughts. It can be uncomfortable, but I recommend listening to those that challenge you, stretch you, and develop you. By seeing these opinions or thoughts as opportunity rather than opposition, you can build stronger solutions. The work we do is too important to take the easy path!

3. Leading from Behind

The theory of leading from behind was proposed and championed by Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School after reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. In it Mandela likens leaders to shepherds directing flocks from behind. Some sheep will move ahead, the flock following those out front, but it is the shepherd who is overseeing and directing the flock. For me, this is the very heart of true leadership. This method gives others the space to emerge, empower, lead, and innovate. And, it provides me the space to support their initiatives but remain focused on the bigger picture and direction.

While not exhaustive, these three tools guide my efforts as a leader. As I have experienced over the years, the power from empowering those around me, while sometimes daunting, leads to success — for the organization and for our staff. At Chemonics, our global workforce has chosen to work with us because they believe in our mission. They want meaning and purpose in their work lives and they want to contribute to something larger than themselves. And, trying to solve complex development challenges provide that opportunity and require us to tap into the power of our collective genius. I am continuously inspired by the people I work with who find new ways, each day, to help make our world better. Being a leader that allows and encourages them to flourish is what I strive for each day.

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About Susanna Mudge

Former President and Chief Executive Officer Susanna Mudge came to Chemonics in 1992 and has served the company in many key leadership roles, including as executive vice president, senior vice president of the Latin America and Caribbean region, and as director of several of the company’s larger programs. She brings in-depth global expertise in strategic…