“Don’t touch my gun,” said the carnapper, pointing at the AK-47 balancing on his knees. I assured him I would not, and clutched the seat as the car careened between long-haul trucks heading to Luangwa and Malawi. The “boss” sat calmly in the back, AK-47 resting on the console, rifling through my wallet while quietly bullying Moses, the CARE driver.
In 1995, carnapping was so common in Zambia that CARE had instructed its drivers to hand over keys in hopes of stemming further violence from car thieves. For more than two years, Moses and I had traversed rural Zambia, clocking thousands of kilometers so I could supervise projects in my portfolio. Now, as the carnapper raced over pothole-filled roads on the outskirts of Lusaka, I realized how ironic it was that Moses and I had been kidnapped in the capital city while going to pick up my five-year old son at a birthday party.
The Boss interjected: ‘We don’t rape women. We’ll take your car and your money. Okay, Sarah?’ I turned, eyes averted, trying to solve for this problem as I might negotiate a project with village elders. I agreed, and calmly faced forward. When the car stopped short in the middle of a cornfield, I realized our nightmare was nearing its end. I prayed the ‘boss’ would keep his word and let us go. Stumbling out of the back seat, Moses was struggling to maintain his composure. The Boss waved in the general direction of the airport and our stolen car sped away. I took Moses by the elbow, urging him forward. As we lurched up the road, I watched horrified as fear grabbed him and he began a high pitched, mournful keening. I think Moses must have seen his own death.
As I look back eighteen years later, I believe it was Moses’ need for compassion and reassurance that prompted me to tamp down my own anxiety and draw upon inner strength I didn’t even know I had until that moment so I could get us through a situation of extreme duress. And the need to “lean in” didn’t end once I arrived safely back at CARE Zambia; we were greeted by a frantic staff. As a team, we had all been traumatized by the kidnapping; as a leader, I needed to foster healing and create meaning when uncertainty and ambiguity prevailed. Thankfully, we succeeded in putting the trauma behind us, and went on to do good work with our community projects.
Over the course of my career, I have drawn on the leadership skills discovered and honed as a result of the carnapping in Zambia. I consciously work to conserve that inner strength, never presuming it will magically kick in when I need it most. This strategy has served me well, especially when I have needed to lead teams through tumultuous times like those experienced during the economic downturn. And I draw on that deep well of inner strength when accepting remarkable opportunities to serve. Now that you have read my story you will understand why, whenever I’m facing an extreme challenge, one of my first thoughts is of my friend, Moses Chindalo, and all that a carnapping taught me about leaning in.