Building Leadership and Social Impact Skills in Students with Social Innovator Roshan Paul

For the 2022-23 academic year, the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego welcomed Roshan Paul to serve as the school’s first ever Social Innovator-in-Residence. He spent a week during the fall of 2022 and a week during the spring of 2023 at the Kroc School sharing insights from his new book, The New Reason to Work: How to Build a Career that can Change the World, co-authored with Ilaina Rabbat; consulting with faculty; and coaching students one-on-one.

Roshan Paul describes himself as an impact leader and creator. He has over two decades of experience in social innovation and currently works as Director of Leadership Practice at IREX in Washington, D.C. Roshan sat down with graduate student Eva Koelzer to share his perspective on leadership and social innovation in education.

Ever since his high school years in India as the captain of the cricket team, Roshan Paul has been a leader. His career journey has led him to innovate, to teach, to mentor, and to build skills in people to prepare them for an impact-first career (a career in which the majority of the work is about making the world a better place and providing value to people that goes beyond the bottom line). Roshan shared with me the most valuable lesson he has learned about leadership throughout his life and career:

Everyone can be a leader.

Oftentimes we conflate leadership with authority—leadership positions/roles—but leadership does not always look this way. Leadership is about stepping up, taking up space, and taking initiative to try to do something differently or to help people. “Small ‘L’ leadership” can take place in small things that a person does every day or in ways that they think. Leadership involves a sense of ownership for the whole: not just for one’s own piece of the work, but for the whole project or organization. Being willing to step up and play that role makes a person a leader.

I asked Roshan, for women and people who belong to other marginalized groups—people for whom taking up space may not seem feasible or be something they have often had the opportunity to do—what does stepping up look like? He assured me that in his 20+ year career, he has seen many women and marginalized people do just that. People are not inherently incapable, but social conditioning can affect people’s comfort levels with taking up space and stepping into leadership. What distinguishes leaders from others, Roshan shared, is self-efficacy: believing, “I can make a difference.” Anyone is capable of stepping up if they have a sense of self-efficacy and can see themselves as capable of being a leader.

This idea is supported by research. A 2002 study published in the Journal of Leadership Education found that self-efficacy is a predictor of leadership behavior and a distinguishing factor between leaders and non-leaders. The study also found that women reported much lower self-efficacy than men.

Fortunately, building self-efficacy in a person is possible. In Roshan’s own life, experiences like being the cricket team captain, and traveling alone where he had to solve problems and navigate difficult situations on his own, helped him to see himself as a leader and to say to himself, “I can do this.” And with each subsequent decision he has made—many that have failed and many that have succeeded—he has built a bit more self-efficacy and self-confidence. Leadership does not have to be done in grand arenas, either, Roshan explained: a person can show leadership in just one class, not across their entire university; a person can be a leader within their family or in their neighborhood. Leadership can start there and then grow.

Roshan suggested that there is perhaps no better task for an educator than building that sense of self-efficacy in people. He sees the role of educators as helping students to look beyond the classroom and their own exam grades/marks, and to see that they are capable of being change agents. This plants the seeds for future impact leaders.

Learning How to Learn…

On the topic of education, I asked Roshan where there is space for innovation in the world of education. He told me that the world is changing faster than we can keep up with it. Therefore, education need not be so focused on acquiring a certain type of knowledge (since it all exists at the click of a button now), but rather on deploying knowledge. People need to learn how to understand knowledge, how to discern truths from untruths, and how to use knowledge to good ends.

In an ever-changing world, we need to be constantly learning and developing ourselves. “You’re going to have to do homework forever,” Roshan advised me. People will likely have to reinvent themselves every seven to ten years in order to stay current. To prepare students for this, educators can help them “learn how to learn and then apply what you learn.” This means instilling in students a love of learning—inside and outside of the classroom—that doesn’t end with their formal education, but actually starts there. This also means assigning students work that mimics what they will do in their future careers and that can be applied to multiple disciplines: working in teams; understanding oneself to be able to show up in healthy ways; learning to communicate effectively with others and bring them around to one’s point of view; organizing a project to deliver a set of outcomes; and developing fluency in technology. This means learning and reinventing oneself right alongside students.

Unsurprisingly, Roshan practices what he preaches. I asked him if he had gone through a recent reinvention himself. For the last decade, he had run a leadership development organization (Amani Institute) that he had built from scratch. In 2021, he stepped down as CEO, realizing that he wanted to try something new, in the climate field. He exercised his love of learning, designing a curriculum for himself to learn all he could about climate change, and utilizing the skills he already had to begin climate-related consulting work. This led him to his current position with IREX, where he is able to merge his expertise in leadership development with his interest in climate change at a much larger scale than ever before. In addition to his director role, Roshan is part of a company task force looking for ways to orient the organization towards climate resilience. In the short term (before he inevitably grows into a new version of himself once again), Roshan plans to build his skills and learn more about himself in his new role. This new context presents new opportunities to build self-efficacy and practice different forms of leadership. He also hopes to use what he learned upon deciding to enter the climate field, to bring climate education and urgency to more people and to bring more people into climate work.

In our final moments together, I asked Roshan a question I believe many students, like myself, may be wondering about: with the impact-first career field growing like never before, with so many possibilities and opportunities and so much uncertainty, with so much to learn and everything changing all the time, how do you know what to do next? Roshan reminded me that I have a long career ahead of me. “With that context,” he said, “it almost doesn’t matter what you do next.” There is no right or wrong job, there are only good jobs and perhaps bad ones.

You don’t have to make the “right” choice, just a good one. There is almost no choice you can make that will be wrong.

And even if a choice feels wrong, it is a learning opportunity. And there is always the option to reinvent yourself.

Thank to Roshan Paul for taking the time to share his wisdom with us! Below are more ways to learn about and connect with Roshan Paul:

Thanks for reading!

Eva Koelzer