Like an oasis, the city of Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan appears to be a mirage of sorts, a shimmering new city sprouting brilliantly from the sparsely populated, Kazakh Steppe. The vast region of open grassland in northern Kazakhstan and adjacent portions of Russia, is part of the largest dry steppe region on earth. The City of 835,000, surrounded by endless waves in a sea of grass and was hosting the inaugural Edmund Muskie Alumni Conference on March 29-30. The 80 alumni cohort members and US Embassy staff were there to share experiences and reflect on the impact of experiences on themselves and others when they returned home.
Nur-Sultan, was the site of the 2017 World Expo showcasing a ‘perfectly designed’ city, created by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. The eerily flawless streets, parks, and walkways are decorated with futuristic buildings that overwhelm the senses, providing a dramatic backdrop for a gathering of bright young people representing the future of the complex region.
The story starts around 2010, when bright, ambitious emerging leaders spread across 12 countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus were welcomed into Universities across the USA on Fulbright Scholarships. Once they completed their Master’s and Doctorate degrees, Cultural Vistas, sponsored by the US State Department, introduced The Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program to provide graduates the opportunity to gain real-world experience complementing and enriching their graduate studies in the United States before returning home.
Once home, alumni found that their countries continued to scratch and claw at each other, or strain with the identity crisis within; still adjusting to the sudden shock of independence from the Soviet Union without the mindset to govern independently. Amid bloody and economic battles and wars from Ukraine to Georgia, Kazakhstan remained everyone’s friend. The generous, welcoming, nomadic echoes of the Kazak people was the ideal place for the future leaders to gather.
The room was packed with experiences that were both unique and shared. 80 individual paths led to a common journey away from conflict, chaos, and conflicting internal identities into a shared experience of growth and awakening. A common theme expressed was the strange experience of returning home, eager to shape a community still stuck in the same frame of mind when they left. They have been greeted with hope by some and suspicion by others. They represent fresh ideas and a break from the current sources of power, and influence. They are viewed as threatening to some and liberating to others. Even the relationships with family and close friends were stressed.
The program, “The Impact of Personality on Communication and Leadership Effectiveness while Experiencing Change”, used the Insights Discovery profile as a foundation for a deeper look into each person’s behavioral clockwork. The concepts of engagement and high performance were explored through the lens of personality, stress, and change. Time was spent examining the less conscience mind, packed full of bias, sleeping memories, and lessons that can either help connect us or create barriers. Consideration was given to the way we communicate and the impact that has on our successes and failures.
Some of our common take-aways from the day included:
· Knowing that our mature sub-conscience is resisting change all the time. The more we can explore and discover our own sub-conscience the better equipped we are to make positive changes in ourselves.
· Force begets resistance: Change needs to come from within. Don’t expect most people to understand the growth you’ve experienced until they walk that path themselves. Invite others to discover, but on their own timetable and journey.
· Meet people how they are: Don’t approach others how you would like to be approached; rather, approach others as they would like to be approached.
· When we are young, our experiences shape us and our personalities. When we are mature, our personalities shape our experiences.
For centuries the Kazak people lived a free, nomadic life. They were one with the steppe and horse. They were stripped of their language, identity and lands by foreign armies and overwhelmed with people who brought their own culture, government, and infrastructure. Irina and I joined the alumni as we were invited into the past with dance, food, and music from the first people to call this home. I didn’t find the bitterness one might expect with such a painful past. Rather, an earnest welcoming and old expression, “What is mine, is now yours.”