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Why Being Smart is Not Enough

Alex O. Awiti is the Vice Provost and Interim Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at The Aga Khan University. Before assuming the role of Vice Provost, Awiti was the Founding Director of the East Africa Institute (EAI) of Aga Khan University.

Under his leadership, the EAI conducted one of the most authoritative studies on East African youth. This study has brought the youth issue to the center of discourse about East Africa’s present and future.

Before joining the Aga Khan University, Awiti was a research fellow at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the City of New York. He was also an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Dr Awiti shared with Sunday Magazine his day-to-day responsibilities and explained why being smart is just not enough in career progression.

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My morning routine is pretty simple – I wake up at 5.30am, get ready for work and head out. I get to the office by 6.30am. My go-to breakfast is fruits. I have two fulltime jobs: I am the vice provost for Aga Khan University and that simply means I’m the chief academic officer for East Africa. In that role, I support the provost in managing the academic programmes of the university. I provide operational oversight to deans and directors of research units, and I also oversee the budget and planning process for the academic parts of the organisation.

My role as the interim dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communications is to support its growth and offer support to faculty, fundraise, support student recruitment, create forums that enables the school to not only advance its mission, but also to influence the training of journalists and help move forward some significant public agendas and discourses that engage and enrich media training and education.

My days are usually packed with meetings.I can have up to 10 in a day. The meetings range from discussions on construction (we are building a new university centre), discussions about academic programmes, budgets and recruitment. My days are diverse and fun. Fun because we get to solve problems. Every day we move the boulder up the hill.

I am a very people-focused person. I understand leadership to mean enabling people to perform as best as they can. I understand it to be collegial. Leadership does not mean you’re the boss and have all the answers. It means you’re first among equals; when you work with a strong team, it means that just about everyone can do your job, and you’re just the figurehead to move the discussions forward, to advance the agenda but you’re not the person necessarily controlling the agenda.

Many years ago, a professor told me: “You’re a really smart guy but that’s not going to keep you in the organisation. It is how you build relationships with your colleagues.” It’s advice I’ve lived by. I have achieved the kind of career progression that I have because of relationships. How do you work with people? Because at the end of the day, when you are hired, people already know you’re smart. That’s not enough. How you deliver on your goals depends on how you build alliances and networks within and outside the organisation.

The best advice I’d give to anyone is life is much more interesting than what you went to school to study. You should be broadly curious and intensely interested in learning. You learn every single day and no matter what station you are in in life, you can learn from anyone.I normally get home at around 8.30pm. I catch up on international news, do a bit of reading and check my work emails. I am currently reading In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria. As an academic and somebody intensely interested in education, I am fascinated by different propositions around the kind of educations we should have. I am firm believer in moral ethics, integrity and a sense of citizenship and responsibility. Those are the broad elements of a liberal education, as well as curiosity and critical thinking.

The last great thing I listened to is a song by Lynda Randle, one of my favourite gospel singers, called God on the Mountain. I listen to that song a lot. It helps you understand that life has its highs and lows. I also love listening to interesting debates. I love The Munk Debates, where leaders debate the major issues facing the world.

Outside work I like photography and writing. I like to take my camera around with me and snap random pictures. They tell me a lot of things about society. Every Friday, I leave town. I like to sit with the birds and take my pictures and come back on Sunday when I spend time with my wife and children. I have three children, all adults.

My proudest accomplishment is raising my children to be good citizens. I believe parenting is by example. You can only get your children to do something by influencing them. For instance, you can’t tell your children to be honest and your lifestyle doesn’t match what you earn. My children know what I earn, and I’m sure they do the math and can see that everything we own adds up. You can’t preach integrity. Also, do not impose your life on them. Let them find their own lives and create the environment for them to pursue whatever they want to pursue. Having said all that, I wouldn’t say I am a super parent. Having responsible children is also a matter of luck.

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