Go with the Flow with Holly Njabo

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Our Center's mission is to enhance the VMI citizen-soldier journey with programming that educates, engages, and inspires critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and leadership development. The VMI Leader Journey podcast is an outreach program where our guests share insights from their personal leadership development journey, and where VMI may have contributed to their personal growth. In this episode, we touched on leadership competencies taught in the mandatory course on leadership in organizations and addressed in the publications VMI Leader Journey publication.


Transcript for "GO WITH THE FLOW" with Holly Njabo '20
HOLLY NJABO ’20: I think this applies especially right now because everything is still very much a standstill, it’s going with the flow and not putting so much pressure on yourself when things don't go the right way. Just pulling from the Rat Line, and regardless of how well you fold something, or how clean your room is or how I don't know, how on-time you are, someone is always going to find a reason. They're always going to find something wrong. They're going to either shout at you because your collar is probably not absolutely straightened or, like, your shoes are not shined to the best. So, regardless of what happens, there... something bad is going to happen and it's just up to you to just say, 'Okay, good. This is what I'm learning from it. Next time I'll fix it so it.' There’s certain things are absolutely out of your control and there's nothing you can do about it except just have a good mindset and smile and keep moving forward. 
EMILY COLEMAN: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics Leadership Journey Podcast!  
DEREK PINKHAM: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit The Center for Leadership & Ethics and VMI Post. We are on this journey with you. Hi, I’m Derek Pinkham,  
COLEMAN: And I’m Emily Coleman. We are your hosts of the podcast.  
PINKHAM: Ms. Holly Njabo, VMI class of 2020, was the Promaji Club President, a biology major, and a rugby player at VMI.  
COLEMAN: Holly spoke to us from her home in Los Angeles as she looks for employment during a planned year away before graduate school pursuits. She also plans to commission in the future.   
PINKHAM: And without further delay, we give you Holly Njabo. 
PINKHAM: Holly Njabo, thank you for coming 
COLEMAN: all right yeah welcome Holly it's good to have you on here. 
NJABO: No problem. Thank you for having me. 
COLEMAN: Let's just start off by you telling us a little bit about yourself and what led you to VMI.   
NJABO: alright so I am... well, my family is originally from Cameroon. And so we've lived here in California for the past, I want to say, 13 years. And so, senior year of high school I was part of this college orientation workshop, sort of, so where we had different colleges come and visit us. And Mr. E. Sean Lanier, he came and visited and gave us like a 15-minute pitch on VMI, and he showed us that video which is I think that is what gets everyone to come to VMI, that really cool video that they have on their website, and I was like that looks really cool because I was doing, JROTC in high school, so let me just write my name down. Just from then on, he would just keep emailing us, and he was very persistent. So my, that was just I just send your application in and see what happens. You don't have to go. And I ended up getting in and I was okay, cool but I'm still… it's in Virginia. I don't even know where it is and I've never heard of it.  
COLEMAN: Right. 
NJABO: So once I finally got in, I just, I think the first thing I noticed about VMI was that I think, what piqued my interest was the acceptance letter. VMI has one of the, like, the prettiest acceptance letters. It makes you feel so official. So, I looked it and I was, 'Okay, maybe this is a pretty good school.' So, I went ahead and did like a little bit more research, and it ended up being like one of the top two schools. So, it was between UCLA and VMI. We went with VMI.  
PINKHAM: So, did you, did you know about the military aspect of it?  
NJABO: I mean,  I knew it was a military school. And I was like, this was me thinking back then that I did a little bit of jury to say I think I can handle this, but I did not... like honestly coming to VMI, I knew nothing about the… I mean, I knew of the Rat Line... in my head, I thought it was nine days. I thought it was just hell week. 
PINKHAM: You'd be surprised at how many, how many cadets haven't ever come before they actually, then, do matriculate.  
NJABO: Right, right. 
PINKHAM: Yeah, it sounds like that was your case as well. 
NJABO: Yeah, yeah, my first day on campus was matriculation. 
COLEMAN: Oh wow. 
PINKHAM: Yeah. Wow, that's pretty awesome. 
NJABO: Honestly, I think it was my blessing in disguise. I didn't come in with expectations of what, like, anything to expect. I just came in with an open mind like whatever happens, happens. I think to me that helped me, especially during the Rat Line, I was ‘okay, is this what we're doing now? Okay, cool. I’ll just go ahead and do it,’  
COLEMAN: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it.  
PINKHAM: Yeah, that's a good mindset, where did you get that from? Do you think you got that from your parents?  
NJABO: Yeah, I think definitely, because we immigrated here from Cameroon. So, my dad's motto has always been you can't limit yourself. Don't set expectations on what's to happen. Don't limit yourself.  Because I feel like once you put yourself in that box, it's very hard to come out of it. So, I think that's definitely what I applied going to VMI. I mean, coming here, like, when we moved here to America, I had no expectations. I didn't know any... we didn't know a lot of people here. We just came in and just said, 'Okay, we'll just see what happens and just work hard and just do your best.' So, I think definitely that's what I applied going to VMI, too. And then my mindset was that 'Okay if I can survive four years at when I go to a place where I know absolutely no one, and I can go to a town where I know absolutely no one. I've never heard of it. If I can get through four years, that I can literally... there's no other place that I can go in and not be comfortable.'  
COLEMAN: Right. 
NJABO: So, that was, I was, 'Okay, this is my test of how I want to apply that to the rest of my life.' 
PINKHAM: Excellent. 
COLEMAN: Very interesting. So, in terms of leadership, what were you involved in at VMI as a cadet? 
NJABO: So, I, uh, third class year, I started off as a cadre corporal and I realized that that was probably wasn't the best route for me because it definitely looks cool. Like, I looked up there I looked up to my cadre. They're, like, the coolest people at the school, but going into second class year, I mean I didn't do anything cadre-wise. I just did the old Corps sergeant and then I did Old Corps first platoon leader and I had so much fun in that position that well because it gave me a different perspective. And apart from that, I also was involved in the VMI Promaji Club. So, I ended up being the president. First Class year, I ended up being the president of the VMI Promaji Club. 
PINKHAM: That's awesome. 
NJABO: And I also did the VMI National Society of Black Engineers. I was also involved in the Women in Science and Engineering club.  
PINKHAM: So, you were an engineering major? 
NJABO: No, I started as a physics major. And I switched to biology because of one class. 
PINKHAM: Biology. That's great. No, it’s… biology is great. 
COLEMAN: So, coming into VMI versus graduating, how do you think that your leadership style or your views have changed over the course of your four years from the time you went over to the time you left? 
NJABO: I think going in, I was a chronic micromanager. 
COLEMAN: Oh, really? 
NJABO: Yes!  
PINKHAM: That's quite an admission! 
NJABO: In high school, I used to be. I was, like, I could just get it done by myself. I'd rather, like, I'll give you something to do, and then I'll be sitting there trying to make sure that every step of the way you're doing it correctly. And at VMI one, you're leading a group of like 20-40 people. There's no way you can micromanage any task. And then, anything could happen. VMI is such, it's a good place because one, it's a controlled environment where you can test out different leadership styles, and then you're allowed to fail and then evaluate what you did wrong, and then move on from there. The fact that at VMI I was, it definitely pushed me past my limits. You have to get out of that mindset of, like, micromanaging and just let people lead. And just being able to sit back and allow people to learn on your own, fail on your own, and then succeed on your own, as well. So, that hundred percent, I'm definitely glad that I got that skill at VMI.  
COLEMAN: Right, so you have to learn how to be more hands-off with things, essentially.  
NJABO: Yes, yes. 
COLEMAN: And do apply that to what you do now?  
NJABO: Yes.  
COLEMAN: Awesome. And what do you do now? 
NJABO: Well, right now I'm not in school. I decided to take a year off because next year I'll be applying to go to graduate school and so, right now, I'm just job-seeking.  
NJABO: I think definitely the mindset of, I mean, in that... in those terms of submitting my application and then contacting recruiters and then just letting it just going with the flow and just seeing what happens, that's definitely something I'm applying now.  
PINKHAM: Well, but it's, it's also a funky time with COVID and other things. Your final semester at school, how did that affect what you're doing now, do you think?  
NJABO: It definitely had some opportunities lined up at the end of the semester that once COVID hit, they were just after certain emails and contacts were like, 'yeah this position has been... We're not recruiting anymore.' It's heartbreaking not being able to do something, now, because I also want... I think, going to VMI, you're like sort of have a 'type A' personality where you need to be doing something all the time, but the fact that a couple of weeks ago I contacted one of my BRs and she's going through the same thing looking for jobs. So, it's also helpful that there are other people going through the same thing. So, you're not out there by yourself.  
PINKHAM: Right you're relying on your network and VMI has a very strong one.  
NJABO: Right. 
COLEMAN: It's kind of like what you guys have to do when you're in VMI. You know that everyone else is going through the same thing.  
NJABO: Very true. Very true. 
COLEMAN: So, you get to rely on people like that.  
PINKHAM: Right.  
COLEMAN: Did you know what career path you wanted to go on and when you were at VMI? And did you have leaders that you looked up to help mentor you in what direction you wanted to go? 
NJABO: Yes, in a sense. I came in with... to VMI with the mindset of, OK, I was going to finish, get my bachelor's and within those four years commission, and then go off to medical school. So, I had made, like, a basic like a 10-year plan and I was going to follow every step of it. And then that did not happen. So, I'm still planning on going to medical school but it's just not playing out the way I wanted to do and then I'm also still planning on commissioning into the military, but it's just that it didn't play out the way I wanted to, which is, in a sense, that's also a life lesson that I've learned through VMI. It doesn't matter how much planning you're going into it, it's just not always going to work.  
PINKHAM: Right, but you're also okay with that and able to work through those tribulations.  
NJABO: Very true. Very true. 
COLEMAN: Has VMI helped you foster any core values for yourself and your future, and whether that's your career or your personal life? 
NJABO: Yes. I'm just going to reiterate, again, I think this applies especially right now with what, because everything is still very much a standstill, it’s going with the flow and not putting so much pressure on yourself when things don't go the right way. Just pulling from the Rat Line,  and regardless of how well you fold something, or how clean your room is or how I don't know, how on-time you are, someone is always going to find a reason. They're always going to find something wrong. They're going to either shout at you because your collar is probably not absolutely straightened or, like, your shoes are not shined to the best. So, regardless of what happens, there... something bad is going to happen and it's just up to you to just say, 'Okay, good. This is what I'm learning from it. Next time I'll fix it so it isn't like this.' Certain things are absolutely out of your control and there's nothing you can do about it except just have a good mindset and smile and keep moving forward. 
COLEMAN: Right, I like that.  
PINKHAM: Yeah, that's good.  
COLEMAN: Do you think VMI has improved your skills in working within diverse team settings? Because I'm sure that, you know, cadets at VMI are always put into team settings and they're super diverse whether it's diversity of thought, whatever it might be, how has VMI I hope to lead those types of teams? 
NJABO: Yes, VMI has definitely helped me work with a diverse amount of teams because I mean, just being in the classroom in the English class, we were exploring topics that everyone from different backgrounds had different opinions on. And I think that was, was extremely helpful because sometimes I feel like sometimes you can get easily caught in your own mindset and that sort of boxes you in, and that doesn't allow you to explore where other people are coming from. So, being put in that scenario definitely helped a lot because you are not... because you think that way, it doesn't mean that that's the only way to think or, that means, that's the correct viewpoint to have on it. So, like in that aspect, being in the classroom and being exposed to different mindsets that has helped a lot. And then also being, even when as a leader, your matter of leading is not always going to apply to everybody. Different people need to be led in different manners. So for example, being the president of the Promaji Club and then being a platoon leader, those required different, like, skill sets, per se.  
PINKHAM: Right. 
NJABO: So, like, the way I was leading as a platoon leader is completely different from the way I was sitting and leading as a president with the Promaji club.  
PINKHAM: Right, right. Can you give us an example?  
NJABO: For example, okay, so, at least for Promaji-wise, there is no way I could come in and yell at people for doing something incorrectly or not submitting, like, a permit on time. That would not work. Like, nothing would get done, and for... as, like, the Promaji leader, like, I had to take maybe a step back and say, okay, just set up the meeting and then everybody comes with like the tasks that were assigned and then everybody just showcases everything that they've done throughout the week or the month or what goals they have met, and then we work from there. Basically, like conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) AAR (after-action report) and then move on from there. But, that's completely different from when I show up in the morning for an inspection. You have to have done the work that already. There's no 'Did you do this or did you not do it.' You have to get it done. You have to show up on time. Your uniform needs to be correct. Approaching these sisters, I had to have, like, a different mindset.  
PINKHAM: Right. So, different roles require different leadership skills or characteristics yeah that's it, no doubt.  
COLEMAN: Can you touch on any peer-to-peer leadership experiences that you've had? Whether they were difficult or they were just understood between BRs?  
NJABO: Yeah, I can definitely say it's, it's much easier to lead, maybe, the people like the classes underneath you because they already have that established sense of respect.  
COLEMAN: Right.  
NJABO: But then when you're leading your BRs, there's sometimes it gets to a point where like, 'okay, I can't be your friend anymore. I need to be your leader.' So, that... managing that fine line was a bit difficult, but it has... you know that at the end of the day, it has to get done. So, sometimes I may not be your friend or you may not like what I'm about to say, but because for the overall wellness of the group, I have to say it and then fix you or, like, do whatever I need to do to get the job done.  
PINKHAM: And maybe in a day or two, the roles would be reversed...  
NJABO: Right.  
PINKHAM: in some sense.  
NJABO: Exactly. 
PINKHAM: So, be the best leader you can be. 
NJABO: Exactly.  
COLEMAN: Is there any way that VMI helped to foster that peer-to-peer leadership skills? 
NJABO: I remember specifically "Maddie" Madeleine Mosier. We were both, like, team captains of, like, the rugby team. And I remember just in that scenario we have to talk and I remember telling her that I was, 'okay. I know that you love me because you're not scared of correcting and even if it's in front of other people.' And that and that's what, I think, that's the mindset that even leading, like, the rugby team, that's the mindset that we approached it. We're like, okay, whereas we started off as a self-led team until we got a captain, so every practice we'd say, don't be scared to correct us regardless if you are an incoming rat or if you're like the first class. Don't be scared of saying, 'hey you did this correctly,' because that means that you want better for me. You can't let me keep making mistakes, and you're aware that I'm making mistakes and not fix it.  
PINKHAM: So, that seems like a lot of trust, really. 
NJABO: Right. 
COLEMAN: And it's, it also seems like an 'I have your back' type of thing. 
PINKHAM: Right.  
NJABO: Exactly.  
PINKHAM: Right, right. 'We're we're here to improve each other,' I guess, is a good way to put it.  
COLEMAN: That's a leadership skill in itself.  
NJABO: Right, yeah. I was especially, I was gonna say that, especially because we were a self-led team so there was no... Like if we weren't out there correcting each other, then nobody else would be. So, in order... because I love you and I care for you and I want you to succeed, I've corrected you and I hope that in the future you can do the same for me. 
COLEMAN: Right. So, how has the current atmosphere with coronavirus affected how you lead yourself, your peers, your team, or how you did at the end of your semester, or how you continue to do so now? 
NJABO: I think in March, I was a little bit more skeptic about how our class was going to handle it. But I think we've done a very good job of going with the flow and then just doing the best with what is available to us. I remember around April when they sent out the email for class agents, and I was so excited because I mean, the aspect, like what it means to be a class agent, I love doing that type of work. So, I signed up for it. And the more we were talking to the alumni board, that's one of the issues that I talked about. I was, ‘okay how do we go about staying as a class?' Because these last couple, like from March to May, we had a bunch of activities planned together as a class. I mean these are all things that are meant to keep us together. Like, this is new to us.  
COLEMAN: Right, yeah.  
NJABO: I think as a class we, I think we've done a good job. I don't think we, we asked we've maybe missed out on what it means to have your last semester at VMI, but I don't, I don't think we're going to.. we're lacking in a sense, like, class, like, relationship-wise, like, staying connected. I don't think we're lacking. It's... I think we have been able to manage this pretty well.  
PINKHAM: Are you in touch with your, your dykes?  
NJABO: Yes, we shoot each other text messages, occasionally just updating each other on our lives.  
PINKHAM: Yeah, sometimes that mentorship stays for a long time for a lot of cadets so I was just wondering about that network as well.  
NJABO: Mm-hmm. Right. So, I think, okay, so, I remember being a rat and I've never understood what it meant to be a dyke until I was a dyke. I didn't understand how much you, you, personally, have to foster that relationship.  About how much energy you have to put into it. And I think, going to that dyke role, I just, I had expectations of what that relationship was going to be, and none of them were met. So, that was, I think, in a sense that was kind of funny but now I completely understand the amount of energy and effort you have to put into, like, keeping that relationship alive because it's not... Yes they are, in a sense, they were given... like, the rats were given to me, but it doesn't mean that that like naturally that relationship is going to form.  
PINKHAM: Interesting. Good. 
COLEMAN: What does leadership mean to you?  
NJABO: Being a good leader, to me, being... means also being a good follower, because I think, especially with VMI, everybody goes through all four stages of being a cadet (being a follower, leading self, leading others, and taking command) and when you're... as a rat, your only role is to be a good rat. And then you look up to people ahead of you, because, in the future, you're going to be one day in those positions. So as long as you fulfill your position well when at that stage, and then you're able to seek mentorship and the people ahead of you. Once you eventually take all those positions, then you're going to be able to fulfill them because you saw it from the follower perspective. So, I think being a good leader, to me at least, means that you are an excellent follower and you were able to look up to other people, ask for their mentorship, ask for advice, and then eventually when you are in those other positions, you can lead those people better.  
PINKHAM: You're turning it around and you're returning those lessons to the, to the, wherever you were before.  
NJABO: Exactly. 
PINKHAM: That's an interesting thing. I don't know that I've thought about it that way. I think I like that perspective, actually. 
NJABO: Right. 
COLEMAN: I really like your 'go with the flow perspective.' I try and do that too. Now have expectations to just take it as it comes. 
PINKHAM: I'm definitely not that go with the flow guy.  
NJABO: I've had to learn to be that. I think, yeah. It definitely wasn't like I was born with it, or anything, it was just because of the situations that I've been put in that I'm, 'okay just see what happens and just go with the flow.'  
PINKHAM: Yeah, no, I wish that were me. Do you have a leadership practice that helps you do that or you, you just realized that you couldn't fight it, or, or that it made more sense to just get in the flow and see where it takes you?  
NJABO: I think, because, previously, when I set expectations, there is no way that everybody will meet those expectations and it says... that sounds... it sounds kind of negative as, 'well people will always disappoint you,' but they're not going out of their way to disappoint you, but so it's more like okay, this... as long as maybe we meet 80% of what was set for us, then we are good to go.  
PINKHAM: Is that maybe just a maturation process? You know, just maturing naturally or definitely VMI set you in that situation and you realized that you couldn't continue that way?  
NJABO: Yes, I think definitely VMI set me in that situation... which is nice because VMI is a nice, controlled environment for us to fail and do. 
PINKHAM: Right, right. Yes, right. 
COLEMAN: Well, awesome! Thank you so much, Holly, it was really good to meet you and it was really good to talk to you.  
PINKHAM: Yeah, really appreciate it.  
NJABO: Thank you. 
Transcribed by https://otter.ai 

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