How I Used Human-Factor Principled Leadership to Transform My Life

A Transformed Life

Amir Al-Kourainy, J.D., M.P.H.

Washington, D.C.

Why I Chose to Act

Demoralized. Isolated. Trapped. These were the words for the feelings I experienced before I moved from my home state of California to Washington, D.C. in 2013. As someone who started law school as the economy was collapsing in 2008, and who graduated when the job market was contracting in 2011, I know what it feels like to struggle. I also know how to face a problem, marshal my inner resources, devise a plan to tackle it head on, and act decisively to achieve transformational life change. My lived experience has convinced me that part of effective, ethical, and human-centered leadership lies in teaching individuals how to do that, and I hope that by sharing how I did, I can help inspire others to believe that it is possible.

When I graduated law school, I faced a world with slightly fewer opportunities than I would have liked. After working so hard, I was ready to take on the world, but I struggled to find work that was fulfilling. My ambitions were large, but my capacity to achieve those ambitions seemed so uncertain.

As the son of a physician, I have always felt called to serve a cause greater than myself, and felt driven to help those who are marginalized and disadvantaged by a medical system that is fragmented, unequal, and inaccessible to too many Americans. To gain experience in doing the work that I felt called to do, in 2012, I went to work as an advocate for the American Lung Association in support of Proposition 29, a California ballot initiative to fund cancer research and smoking cessation programs.

Although we worked hard, we were unable to motivate voters to support our initiative, so we lost our campaign. Our loss made me even more determined to dedicate my life to becoming a healthcare leader, so that I could help influence individuals and our society to build a foundation for health, wellness, and a more accountable and efficient healthcare delivery system, but it also taught me a valuable lesson about sustainable change, and it is this:

The Lesson I Learned About Sustainable Change

Social change is vitally important, and more funding for government programs is sometimes essential. However, before seeking to achieve social change, we need to start with individuals first. Before seeking to be led by others, we must first learn to lead ourselves. Sustainable change often doesn’t begin with the adoption of a government program, but with an individual, or a collection of individuals, who identify a problem, brainstorm solutions, and devise a path forward towards a better future for themselves. That’s what I’ve done, and what human-factor leadership can inspire us all to do.

How to Act in the Face of Uncertainty

I knew that I could more effectively learn how to craft and implement impactful health policy in Washington, D.C., and that a Masters of Public Health could provide me with much-needed credibility in the field. But I doubted whether I could handle moving across the country to forge a new life in D.C. when my only exposure to what life might be like was watching episodes of “House of Cards” on Netflix. When I discussed my goals with people I respected, many said that my dream of working in health policy was not realistic and should be abandoned for more practical and achievable goals. But anybody who knows me knows that I never shirk from a challenge, and that I have always been far too stubborn to give up on my dreams. So instead, I looked inward, devised a plan, and proactively moved forward.

How I Used Human-Factor Leadership to Move Forward with Persistence

I researched M.P.H. programs across the country, and found that The George Washington University’s program taught what I wanted to learn, so I called the Policy Director and communicated why I felt that I’d be an asset. He encouraged me to apply, and I did. A few weeks later, I received a rejection letter. I felt devastated, but rather than allowing myself to be defeated by my circumstances, I again chose to take action. I responded to learn more about how I could become a stronger candidate, and was told that I lacked a strong science and statistics background. Since I had applied to the Health Policy program, which wasn’t science-focused, I wrote back to advocate for myself. A few days later, I learned from the Policy Director that my application had been sent to the Epidemiology Department by mistake. I requested for my application to be sent to the Health Policy Department to be reassessed, and shortly thereafter, I received an acceptance.

The Transformational Power of Values-Centered Living

Since moving to Washington, D.C., I have worked in health journalism, academia, advocacy, and the federal government. My experiences have enabled me to view our most challenging healthcare issues through the eyes of multiple stakeholders. At “Health Affairs,” I learned the importance of presenting unbiased information to provide a foundation for evidence-based change. At Enroll America, I helped to educate and better reach the uninsured. While working in the U.S. Senate, I provided guidance to stakeholders on how to navigate political systems that often felt out of reach. I now assist with implementing the Affordable Care Act. Learning and applying the principles of human-factor leadership has enabled me to channel my passion for helping others into a meaningful career. I know these life skills can be learned, because I didn’t always know how to do that, or believe that I could.

Advice on How Strugglers and Strivers Can Lead Themselves

I’d like to dedicate this article to all who sometimes fail to believe in themselves as much as they should, or who might be burdened by a mental or physical health challenge that sometimes feels too overwhelming to cope with. I’d also like to share the principles that I used to create the change that was so desperately needed in my own life, and offer some words of encouragement for anyone who experiences a fork in the road, and who doesn’t always know where to turn. Act as if you believe that you can succeed, even when you have doubts that that is possible. When you face the choice between doing what you think is right or what is easy, always try to do what is right. When you must decide between something that fills you with confidence, or something that scares you, do what scares you. When you make a mistake, know that it’s okay. You often learn more from making the wrong choice than you do from making the right one. And lastly, and most importantly, when you, like me, doubt whether or not you can succeed, remember this, you may surprise yourself with how well you might do if you believe in yourself enough to try.


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