Leadership without Language

Sunday afternoon I had the chance to venture over to Blue Star Sport Club, Kampot Province’s only gym.  Housed in a large metal shed with distinct blue roofing and exposed to the elements, the owner has gathered up and placed inside a unique variety of free weights, exercise machines, and ping pong tables.  1,500 Cambodian Riel—approximately 37 cents USD—will grant you access for a single workout.  I paid my money, said hello to the owner who speaks not a word of English, and ventured over to the corner with odd shaped and unmatched free weights to get down to business.


I completed my first set of work intensely and in the zone not paying much attention to my surroundings. After I finished the set, I looked up and noticed that there were four or five young Khmer men aged probably 14-20 years old all standing around me, carefully watching.  I felt honored that they were watching me, as I was clearly the guest in their place to workout.  One young man attempted to talk to me, but my ability to speak Khmer does not extend much beyond saying “Hello my name is Tyler,” so he quickly realized we could not communicate with words. My smile, head nod, and thumbs up seemed to satisfy them, because after my second set, they all grabbed similar weights and began to copy me and do exactly what I did. I walked around to them, pointing to their elbows, knees, and backs making gestures to attempt to help them understand the correct technique.  Applauding them when they performed a movement correctly, they all seemed to get very excited and kept working harder and harder. After one of the Khmer gentlemen would complete a set, I would pretend to flex my arm, point to my bicep, and then to their arm while making a growling noise. This was my attempt at saying, “Good job, you are strong!”  Abysmal at first, their weight lifting technique markedly improved after 10-15 minutes of my Charlie Chaplin-esque coaching.


Not thinking too much of this experience at the time, it hit me when I attempted to leave the gym and they all chased after me to say goodbye and give a strong high-five—I led others without using language.  I did not need persuasive speech, sharp tones, or inspiring words. Instead, all I needed was evident passion and clear empathy. I learned at Blue Star Sport Club that Sunday afternoon the meaning of leadership by action and not by words. It is easy to tell a man what to do to make him better or ‘more healthy.’ It is much more difficult, yet much more rewarding, to show that man what to do to become better or ‘more healthy.’ I am without a doubt that this experience has helped shape me into a better future physician.


-Tyler Wright, medical student

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