By Salome Makharadze, Daniel Saka Mbumba, and Jennifer Walters

As our fellowship year closed in June, scheduled opportunities to develop our leadership capabilities and address global challenges vanished from our calendars. Now, it is up to us to continue the journey we began with the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership Program (MLP).

As we 2021 Millennium Leadership fellows discussed our individual and collective experiences, we came away with vast and diverse impressions and insights, but some stood out above the rest. As we enter a new phase of our leadership journeys, we all have common concepts to apply—and similar questions circling our minds.

Improving leadership techniques and outcomes

Our cohort is a microcosm of millennial leadership. We hail from thirty-five countries and represent a set of unique career journeys, a collective depth of experience, and a roster of broad accomplishments. On paper, we display a much-needed diversity of public-, private-, and nonprofit-sector perspectives.

But how do we ensure that those perspectives are translated into one cohesive voice and that we, as leaders, can become agents of change? It starts with the understanding that any leadership challenge at its core is a human challenge. So, as leaders, we have to tackle those challenges by becoming more comfortable with being vulnerable in front of others.

At the beginning of our fellowship, we heard about each other’s “watershed” moments, life experiences, and failures. Each of our histories reflected a map of peaks and valleys, with everything from professional failures to incomparable personal tragedies changing the trajectory of our lives. We realized that our failures generate the motivation, resolve, and momentum needed to start the next chapters in our lives. And because we shared our failures with each other, we were each able to draw authentic insight and growth from getting a sense of each person’s full backstory rather than only the successes captured on their glittering resumes.

In sharing what resonated from these experiences, we realized that we were connected by our experiences, and that realization created a solid foundation for us to start building a community to drive meaningful impact.

Learn more about the Millennium Fellowship

The Millennium Fellowship is a year-long, high-impact leadership accelerator for rising leaders from around the world and across sectors. Through our program, accomplished global professionals with both demonstrated achievement and reserves of potential sharpen their leadership abilities, increase their capacity for meaningful impact, and build community. Fellows complete a curriculum comprised of world-class leadership development resources and have access to the Atlantic Council’s geopolitical expertise, global networks, and international reach. 

Engaging peers on shared goals

In the world of professional fellowships, a prevailing sentiment emerged during the pandemic that fellowships would be better in person. The subtext of that suggests that personal relationships are harder to forge remotely without face-to-face interactions, coffee meetups, or hallway chats; therefore, it is often expected that remote ties to others would be less genuine and the resulting network less robust. MLP not only defied this notion: It proved that a remote environment can successfully foster authentic relationships.

The Atlantic Council seemed to us to deliberately select fellows not just for their individual achievements but rather to gather a collage of skills and experiences into one fellowship class. We felt that this accelerated the development of bonds between fellows. This composite of industry expertise, skills, and diverse worldviews made for a cohort in which the sum exceeded the parts. It felt as though on day one, we were already well beyond the typical water-cooler talk. It seemed as though we were matched with our cohort members, and each fellow brought big ideas, a demonstrated desire for action, and a dedication to working hard to pave the road to change.

We found that MLP offers the chance to regularly engage with our peers in one-on-one, small-group, and large-group settings. In all of these formats, but especially one-on-ones, we felt each fellow was sending a clear message that they were interested in each colleague’s story, that they trusted their colleagues enough to share their own stories, and that we could work together on things that matter.

Collaborating across sectors for a better common future

As our world continues to face an unprecedented number of crises, there is a need to develop an inclusive and sustainable solution for a better common future—that will require forming relationships across sectors.

Our experience at MLP shows how public-private partnerships can stem from individual ties. Being part of the MLP community offers a unique opportunity to join a network of young leaders with diverse backgrounds from a wide range of sectors and to actively contribute to the cross-fertilization of ideas. Special bonds developed through one-on-one chats, pod meetings, and study tours have already fostered multiple collaborative efforts beyond the scope of the program— and this would not have been possible without the authenticity and richness of our conversations.

MLP is unique not only because we were able to form genuine friendships, but because we were able to connect with fellows across the globe. Without the MLP program, realistically speaking, many of us never would have crossed paths in our lives. And even if our personal or professional roads would have intersected in the future, MLP still offers the unique opportunity to build relationships while on a shared journey to grow as leaders. Empowered with our invaluable connections, we can see opportunities becoming unlocked and ready to be seized. Our deepest hope is that we keep nurturing these ties, turning them into long-lasting bonds with the common desire to build a better world as each of us advances in our leadership journey.

Shaping the global future

We learned during our fellowship that the study and practice of Atlanticism, a pillar of the Atlantic Council’s mission and goals, is critical for all of the fields we represent. Just this year, a single event reminded us how quickly global circumstances can change and how rapidly nations can reconsider, redefine, or altogether renege on their geopolitical positions: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack against Ukraine, a sovereign country, resulted in much of the world mobilizing to provide aid to Ukraine, but the damage to the international, rules-based order had already been done. The specter of war hung like a pall across the globe for a brief but real moment. In Ukraine, this war is more than a specter—it is a devastating reality. But efforts from across the transatlantic community to sanction Russia, supply Ukraine, and speak out against Putin’s actions show that Atlanticism, with the liberal and democratic values it represents, provides a counterbalance to the brutal inertia of authoritarianism worldwide.

Looking forward

Our relationships are the most important outcome of our fellowship year together. This renders one lingering question: Will they last? More time will need to pass before we can answer that question completely. But already, we recognize that we’ll need to establish a new form of connective tissue to replace the fellowship’s programming to maintain these relationships. To build such a space, our cohort is in the process of launching an Alumni Advisory Board that will include members of each fellowship year. The board will enable past, present, and future fellows an avenue to maintain relationships while addressing enduring and emerging global challenges.

We can expect the world to constantly confront us with new, complex, and interconnected challenges. But thanks to our MLP experience, we have a distinct advantage in facing those challenges: We are all interconnected. Newly shaped by our fellowship, we are a community—an example of Atlanticism in action—that is determined to keep pace with these challenges.

Salome Makharadze is a 2021 millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council and the managing director for the Alternatives Capital Markets and Strategy Group at Goldman Sachs.

Daniel Saka Mbumba is a 2021 millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council and a sanctions compliance project manager at BNP Paribas in Paris.

Major Jennifer Walters is a 2021 millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council and an Air Force officer currently serving as an Olmsted scholar. She is also a KC-10 instructor pilot.

Further reading

Blog Post

Jan 31, 2020

In their own words: Millennium Fellows reflect

Three Millennium Fellows shared their thoughts with us on their motivations to join, where they found the most value, and shared some advice for prospective applicants and the incoming class. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.