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What Carrying A House In The Jungle Taught Me About Communication, Community and Leadership

Dean Russell, CEO and founder of epifny consulting, was asked to write a new essay for an upcoming Parliament Street book about his personal experience on recent charity missions in the Philippines and his learnings for leadership and communications. An excerpt from the upcoming book is shared below:

I have had the fortune over the past twelve months to work closely with one of our epifny consulting clients - British-founded Charity - The Greg Secker Foundation (GSF). The charity is involved in several initiatives, most notably their work to build a Typhoon-proof village in a remote jungle in Lemery, Iloilo in the Philippines, to support families affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

The area I visited during my first trip was one of those hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan, aka Super Typhoon Yolanda which was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded and the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record; killing at least 6,300 people. Four years on, the scars were clear to see everywhere - and not just on the landscape. Those who bore the brunt of its devastation were often those who had very little in the first place. Despite the backdrop, I experienced some genuinely life-affirming moments that showed the enduring power of community and the human spirit.

A lesson in community cohesion

Across the multiple visits to the village and many incredible moments, one that sticks in my mind involved an ancient Filipino tradition called Bayanihan; the act of carrying an entire house to a new location. The reason for the event was to help a beneficiary, Raymond and his family move into the village. Raymond is blind and, like all of the beneficiaries lost everything during Typhoon Haiyan. In the week before the trip, Raymond's home had been struck again by another smaller Typhoon, which flooded his house and washed away the few remaining possessions they owned. In an ideal world, Raymond would have moved into one of the completed homes in the village, but at this point most of the village was still under construction, so it would have been far too dangerous for Raymond to navigate.

Instead, we had to go to plan B: Move Raymond's existing home into a safe area of the village. The challenge was that Raymond currently lived an hour's walk away from the village via a dirt track in the middle of the jungle. I can still recall the heat, humidity and buckets of rain pouring down on us all as we collected together to dismantle Raymond's house; a ramshackle single room hut. In the horrid conditions, we all joined together to carry Raymond's home, including a very heavy corrugated metal roof, up a steep muddy hill several kilometres away (until we could get some additional help from a vehicle). When we finally reached the village the community rebuilt Raymond's house on safe ground with incredible care and love. The feeling of togetherness during the Bayanihan was palpable, and what I learnt from this and subsequent trips was that the community bonds that have been forged in the village (and beyond) had been born out of a sense of collective responsibility for each other. What I also found from conversations with many of the beneficiaries - especially during the official opening in January 2018 - was that the strength of the community also comes from the fact there is a sense of ownership over the future they are building together in the village.

Now, everyone has moved into their homes and the community are actively working together to improve their day-to-day circumstances. Many are learning new skills and setting up new businesses (selling local produce such as Pickled Papaya) and taking part in education programmes. None of this has happened by chance, the Foundation has worked hard to encourage everyone in the village to come together, and purposely built community spaces for families to come together for meetings, dancing and to sell their wares. Ultimately, giving people both a say and stake in their local community is in-turn bringing them ever closer together.

Photo: Carrying Raymond’s roof with Greg Secker and charity ambassador Miss Earth Angelia Ong into the village as part of the Bayanihan

The power of personal communication

The next personal lesson was during my second visit to the Philippines in November 2017. During this visit, I was fortunate enough to take part in a joint GSF mission with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. The Foundation, led by two inspirational figures, Bill and Tani Austin, has a clear purpose to 'give the gift of hearing to those in need, empowering them to achieve their potential'. In 2010, Bill Austin committed to Former US President Bill Clinton that he would provide 1 million hearing aids to people in need over the next decade, and to date have given the gift of hearing in more than 100 countries. The mission I joined in Manila was a life-changing experience. Over an intensive, non-stop day, I had the incredible fortune of fitting hearing aids to countless young children - literally giving the gift of hearing to vulnerable kids who would never have been able to afford to do so. To say it was an emotional experience wouldn't even come close to describe the intensity of it all. Even now, as I write this piece, I can vividly recall the memories of children's eyes lighting up as they heard their parents voices for the first time.

While there is an incredibly strong deaf community in the UK, with sign language an essential first language for many, for the families I met in the Philippines, this was not the case. Many of these children were ostracised, isolated and sadly bullied because of their hearing impairment. So fitting the hearing aids to these children went much further than just hearing, it meant it would change their future for the better. Perhaps the most important benefit was that of communication: because now they could now learn to speak too. Especially at this young age, the lack of auditory feedback means children struggle to form sounds which severely impairs their speech and makes it very difficult to communicate.

Dean Russell and Miss Earth Angelia Ong Following A Successful Hearing Aid Fitting

Photo: Dean Russell with GSF Ambassador and Former Miss Earth Angelia Ong Following A Successful Hearing Aid Fitting

Perhaps that's why the most magical moment of the fitting process turned out to be teaching children to form sounds for the first time. To do this, children are repeatedly asked to say phrases like 'Bah Bah', 'Ah Ah' etc. To my surprise it took just a few moments for the kids to go from making unformed sounds to accurate pronunciation. However for one girl, Rosamie, who was just 4 or 5 years old, she really struggled. Despite my best efforts, she just couldn't form the sounds. I didn't want to give up on Rosamie but also didn't want to upset her by pushing too hard for her to succeed. So while she sat on the chair, I reassured her and then paused the session so she could take some time for herself and try on her own. I pretended to organise some paperwork for the fitting as she tried over and over, then as I watched, Rosamiestood up and walked over to her mother. At first, I was worried she had given up. Then, as she approached her mother she held her hand gently and stared deep into her eyes, Rosamie looked up and spoke clearly and lovingly - 'Mama Mama'. Her mothers face transformed, and both she and I cried as Rosamie smiled from ear-to-ear repeating this magical phrase.

I continue to feel blessed to have seen the power of communication so up close and personal across the course of the mission that day, and it brought home to me the importance of interpersonal communication. Yes, we are connected more than ever thanks to technology, but the ability to look into another persons eyes and communicate personally is so much more powerful than typing behind a screen.

Photo: Group photo with The Starkey Hearing Foundation Founder - Bill Austin - after fitting hearing aids to two members of the same family

Isolation and loneliness

The third personal lesson was closer to home. It stemmed from my participation in another GSF event here in London before Christmas 2017. The event was a Basket Brigade, a partnership between the Foundation and the Salvation Army, where we purchase, pack and deliver 100 'baskets' of food, wrapped gifts and essential items for struggling families and older individuals across London. It is an annual event which has got bigger each year and is a real feat of logistics and passion by all involved. Perhaps the most powerful part of the delivery is not the 'basket' itself but the message we deliver on the doorstep. When asked who the 'basket' is from, myself and other volunteers simply stated "It's a gift from a friend, someone who cares about you." Those words, almost without fail, transform the faces of recipients with smiles and tears from all. In most cases, the recipients don't even know what is in the basket, but the fact someone cared enough to do something for them was intensely powerful.

Dean Russell Taking Part In The #GSF and Salvation Army #BasketBrigade in London

This initiative highlighted the isolation so many individuals in our communities face, hidden behind closed doors despite living on busy streets. So often the older people we delivered to were widows, with no-one to speak-to or listen to them and caught out on the wrong side of the digital divide. It wouldn't take much to make a difference in their lives, perhaps just a knock on the door for a chat, or a companion to join them on a trip to the shops.

These lessons have emphasised to me that while we race towards an ever more technologically advanced future, we should pause to consider what this means for all of us who will continue to live in the real world. I think this is an important lesson for leaders too. It can be overwhelming keeping on top of all the sources of information now available via digital technology, never mind the seemingly endless requests via email and other channels, but communicating digitally will never fully replace the role of face-to-face leadership. As they say, it can be lonely at the top, but this is only going to be more so if team management only takes place via digital channels and email. The role of a leader is to support their team, but also make sure they are supported too. Working only behind the closed doors of an office can do damage to both the leader and the team. I learned first hand that the power of communication goes beyond words alone, and the most impact a leader can have is in empowering those around them to make a difference in their own world.

In conclusion, it is a cruel irony that the world seems to be better connected than ever, with an increasing obsession with social media and smartphones, yet we probably communicate less than ever in the real world. From my many experiences over the last few months, I have learned that the human spirit is universal, that when we work together, we can accomplish miracles, but when divided and isolated, we breed doubt and limitation. The United Kingdom is not just great because of the ground we walk on; it is because of the interpersonal bonds that tie us together. We must continue to fight against the current political rhetoric of division, and at the same time ensure we are making decisions that encourage people to rub shoulders, to connect on a human level and have a stake in what happens around them. Otherwise, I fear, we risk sleepwalking into a future where we blindly create fault-lines between individuals which cause isolation and segregation which cannot be good for any of us.