5 Things I Learned about Leadership in 5 Days of Chairing an International Youth Conference

Leading is like gardening. You prepare the soil, give enough sunlight; you water, fertilize; you protect your lot from storm. Your seeds are in their shells, under the earth, warm and comfy. You can’t force your seeds to grow. So you create the environment – that’s all you can do – in the good hope that they will grow by themselves into little green sprouts. Growing isn’t easy. The seeds must choose to leave their warm and comfy shells. They must crack and push through the soil. And you are there, watching them, clapping, cheering, loving their beautiful struggles.


This is my definition of leadership. This is also the overarching theme of the latest youth development conference – an international gathering of young people from 11 countries in Asia Pacific – powered by AIESEC in Singapore. I had the privilege to “chair” this event – to be someone who backstage enables facilitators and organizing team to work together to deliver a great experience to delegates, while onstage helps delegates make their own experience worthwhile.

Here are 5 things I learned in these 5 days of loving, growing and rediscovering leadership. As there can be no right leading without right living, I believe these are not just lessons in leading, but also lessons in being human.

Personal Leadership - If you want to deliver a value, you must first be the value

This is one of the first things I said to the conference team during our pre-conference meeting. For instance, if they want delegates to be vulnerable, because vulnerability is the prerequisite for connection, they must first be vulnerability. They must learn to tell their stories with their whole heart, lower their guard, allow themselves to be seen – naked, with all of their beauties and flaws – and loving themselves, and allow themselves to be loved in that process.  I organized spaces where the conference team could be themselves and show their real emotions. But more importantly, I was vulnerability.

I encouraged delegates to practice Presence – Curiosity – Love, knowing that my best shot at putting these values in their hearts is to be Presence, Curiosity, Love. All the way.

Therefore, instead of asking ourselves “How can I make my team more courageous?” we should first wonder “Am I courage?”. After the conference, one delegate wrote to me: “I will be courage”. She had learned this lesson.


Simplicity - “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

These are the words of Leonardo da Vinci. It doesn’t apply only to art but also to life, especially to leadership, and particularly to communication. I repeatedly asked the facilitator: “What exactly do you mean? Try to explain it more simply.” because if you can’t explain it in plain words, you don’t understand it. There were many moments when I pulled the facilitators out of their foggy bubble: “Alright guys! I think we are stuck. Let’s take a step back.”

I noticed that the more we know about something, the more we tend to use buzz words, as if without these words we would offend our audience’s intelligence. 

Good leaders simplify.

I strived for simplicity and consistency in my sessions. I repeated the concepts previously mentioned, used the same slides several times so that the messages can take roots in the delegates’ mind. There were phrases that ended up becoming the conference’s signatures: “This is great!” – embrace wonderful presence, or “Tickle your heart” – love, or “The seeds” – personal transformation.

Humbleness - Dim your light so others can shine

“You should think about your ‘chair entrance’ Milena,” Kevin – the agenda manager told me in one of our calls. So I was on my flight from Hanoi to Singapore, pondering my entrance. Then it hit me: “What am I doing?” I asked myself. “I don’t come there to be a rock star or to make myself feel important. My job is to make delegates and conference team feel important!” I scribbled down my notebook next to “entrance”: “Just walk in.” Though 3 minutes to the opening, the team insisted on having me jumping out from a stack of chairs – which some delegates thought was brilliant – my intention was to dim my light throughout the conference.

I created spaces for delegates to share their stories and inspire each others. I give them the trigger, the love, the microphone, and the spotlight. Sitting in front of whoever had enough courage to share, I listened, nodded. My starry eyes whispered “You can do it.” One by one, she or he lit up. That’s when I know the seed had cracked and will push through the soil.


Letting go & Empowering – “We are all in this together.”

“Space is yours.” Every time I said this, I feared that no one would respond or someone would tell a story that put the rest to sleep. Letting go of the desire to control was extremely hard. And I sat back quivering with uncertainty. However, what I received were incredible stories that filled the  room with magic, and brought tears to my eyes: stories about abandoned childhood, about broken friendship, about leadership failures, about hanging on, about death, about hope.

Their English wasn’t perfect. Some stories contained too much details it became rambling. But when I looked closely at the girl who sat under the light, in front of a hundred other young people, speaking softly about her life’s biggest mistake, all I see was pure courage. I fell in love with those struggles. The rest of the audience were learning to see and love those struggles too.

I realized a truth: I wasn’t alone in this gardening mission. Leaders over-control because they put too much importance on themselves. The truth is, their lonely effort is inadequate to transcend good to great. I was a part of a great ecosystem.

Acknowledge this ecosystem and remind everyone that “We are all in this together” released the tremendous power of individual’s ownership.


Self-compassion – Courage comes when you begin to love your own struggles.

It wasn’t perfect. I screwed up several times. Delegates turned poker-faced during videos that moved me to tears for example. Whenever I caught myself sliding down the self-condemning spiral, I reminded that I, too, was a seed trying to push through the soil. I, too, was learning. And that my struggles, too, needed love.

The love a leader needs the most is self-love.

Letting go of self-condemning redirected my energy from past shame to present effort, and gave me the confidence of innocence to think differently, and to take risk – like a kid who explores every corners of her playground, who falls, and gets up, and continues.