Zahira’s story: “I’m witnessing all these transformations in the classroom and I feel privileged."
By: Joanna OConnor
Last updated: Friday, 17 December 2021
Dr Zahira Jaser, Deputy Director of the Sussex MBA and Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management, talks about leadership, building resilience and the transformative power of the MBA.
My first role was in investment banking with JP Morgan, which was a pretty big experience for me. I don’t come from a family of business people, I’m a woman, and I’m not English or American (English is my second language), so I was a very unusual presence in that environment.
After having my children, I wanted change, but I felt I had to define myself. This was ten years ago, but now it's much more natural to say: “I just want to change. I want to be authentic. I want to find a job that is more aligned with my purpose.” There is now a much more fluid idea of what a career is, and people are seeking jobs that are more fulfilling. This idea of a continuous career is changing.
I went back to university to study for a Masters and I was one of the oldest students in the room. It was so insightful because I realised my previous experiences had taught me so much. I fell in love with social psychology and studying motivation, leadership and how people behave.This led to me starting my own consultancy and I found that, as well as developing content and being curious about ideas, I especially loved teaching people and passing on the knowledge. Now, I’m a full time academic, which was a complete 180-degree transformation for me.
Since teaching on the MBA, I’ve seen people going through a similar period of transformation. They may be unfulfilled in their current job and in need of growth – although they might not know in which direction. There are people who want to upscale or are already where they need to be but want to strengthen their position. There are also people who want to leave the corporate world and start their own business, and they come to learn about finance, strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship – and also a bit more about themselves as they embark on a new journey.
In my research and teaching, I’m particularly interested in exploring the concept of leadership. We tend to think of a leader as a heroic figure who comes to the rescue, and that is still very much the way many organisations think about them. But leadership is a lot more complex than that. If you’re a manager, you need to be able to breach different levels, so that you’re not just being a leader to the people you’re trying to influence in your team, but you’re also influencing upwards to the people at the top. When I teach leadership, I also teach followership – not as a passive thing, but as a courageous act of upward influence, and how to deal with the tensions that come from the two.
I also teach critical thinking in leadership. Leadership through the lens of diversity, for example, becomes a much more fine-tuned and sensitive exercise than the heroic leadership we would think about in the past. Leadership involves things like empathising and listening. Being a good leader means finding a resolute direction in which to go, but also connecting with people and taking them with you, through being humble and human.
Part of being human is understanding your limits. If we push ourselves blindly in a certain direction in our careers, without looking after our own personal resources like our emotional and cognitive limits, and our psychological balance, we break down. From an environmental perspective, if we don’t cherish our planetary resources in our systems of production, we will create unsustainable systems that will self-destroy, and we’re seeing this with the climate crisis. It’s very important that when we exert a strong effort in business we don’t forget these aspects and limits, and respect them. That is how you become resilient.
As someone who changed careers, when I was initially thinking about leaving, I felt inadequate and that there was something wrong with me. I thought I had to change to fit the career path I was on. Some students arrive with similar feelings of inadequacy. But during the MBA they find that they have wings – they just needed a path, or a whirlwind, to help them take off. Our students see a much more complex and wider reality, and start appraising their skills, in the context of a more neutral and less pressurised environment. We have had people tell us they’ve gone through this transformation.
Taking an MBA teaches that you are not alone in the search for change. When you study other leaders in the course, you realise that no one has made it without struggles. No one’s path has been linear. The people who inspire me the most are those who are struggling, feel unheard and are enduring difficult times. Those who, in the face of adversity, have managed to stay strong and find coping strategies and ideas which sustain them in their development.
Transformation is not something clean and neat – it means overcoming difficulties and struggles. I’m witnessing all these transformations in the classroom and I feel privileged. With the MBA there is definitely a before and an after.