Contributing writer: Megan Preston
The Georgia Tech Leadership Education and Development Office was recently able to send one promising Georgia Tech student, Mahdi Al Husseini, to the fifth annual McDonald Conference for Leaders of Character (MCLC). The conference took place March 30th – April 2nd and is hosted yearly by the United States Military Academy, known colloquially as West Point. Al Husseini is an undergraduate student preparing for his last year at Georgia Tech. He is double majoring in Biomedical Engineering and Public Policy, with a Minor in Leadership Studies. As a student of three different Tech colleges– the College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Business – he is “always flying from place to place” across campus but loves the different perspectives offered by his distinct courses, he says.
Al Husseini hopes to be flying in more ways than one. He is actively involved in Army ROTC; after graduation Al Husseini will be commissioned to the U.S. Army in an officer position as a second lieutenant. He hopes to be placed on active duty as a Blackhawk pilot, “which specifically means that I will be focusing on aeromedical evacuations, meaning that if someone is injured on the battlefield, it’s my job to go out there with a helicopter and man a crew which will essentially take care of that person and pull them to a nearby hospital for further treatment,” he explains.
This year’s conference theme was “Opposition and Innovation: Taking Risks to Lead Change”. The MCLC bills itself as “the premier transformative, short duration leadership experience for young, emerging global leaders who unite with world leaders in an enduring partnership.” It featured participants from 21 universities and 16 countries. The participants will stay in touch as they work together to write online editorial pieces for the New York Times exploring this year’s MCLC topics in more depth.
Al Husseini had two reasons behind his application to attend. “I wanted to see West Point,” he jokingly admits, but his more pressing motivation was the opportunity to delve into the conference’s main subject of prudent risk. “The idea of prudent risk is the concept that we all have to gamble with uncertainty and we have to make informed decisions at the same time, and being able to do that in an environment that is contested or polarized, being able to navigate those waters and have those conversations, is incredibly important.”
The conference tackled risk from three different angles – ethics, expression, and structure – with breakout groups and interactive discussions following each panel talk. A variety of distinguished senior fellows and guest speakers were present at the conference, with diverse backgrounds ranging from CEOs to university presidents to military and political leaders. Al Husseini’s favorite speaker was Sir John Hood – “literally the guy’s a knight, how crazy is that” – who previously served as the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University.
Sir Hood spoke about risk as it relates to structure, and the unique challenges he faced when trying to implement organizational change in such a long-standing institution. Al Husseini found the navigation of those risks and difficulties particularly compelling. “It’s an interesting idea, tradition versus progress, and of course they should be working together but in a sense it can seem like a zero-sum game” where one is constantly at odds with the other, says Al Husseini. “There’s a lot of value to tradition, but at the same time we have to be able to adapt to the world around us.”
One of Al Husseini’s biggest takeaways from the conference is the importance of having respectful conversations about tough topics to enact change. “How can we encourage conversation and understand and respect the minority in terms of a decision that can oftentimes be polarizing, and how can you continue to progress and innovate when there are so many obstacles in terms of the atmosphere?” He asks. “All those small pieces and smaller ideas, some regarding risk, some regarding innovation, some regarding ethics, some regarding intention - they come together and start popping up in what we do every day.”
We all deal with risk in our day-to-day lives. “Risk could be anything from is this an individual I want to have a conversation with, is this something that could have an impact on my future career,” Al Husseini describes. For him personally, prudent risk will be especially relevant after graduation, when he’ll take part in leading people into battle to accomplish high-stakes missions. “There are lives on the line,” he puts it bluntly. “For me, to be better able to understand those risks and how to take those risks and the mentality that one should have regardless of the type of risk, I think it will have a very direct impact on my time on active duty.”