07/08/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Rebuilding Countries by Building Leaders

A few weeks ago, while at the Za'atari Refugee Camp here in Jordan, I stumbled on a small oasis in this desert. On an intensely hot afternoon, I set out to buy water from one of the Syrian vendors. The search was a short one. Only steps from where I was working, I fell upon an ice cream shop. It was a meticulously organized, bright store with enough selection to make Ben and Jerry blush. The owner of the shop was a teacher from Syria. "How does a teacher come to sell ice cream?" I asked. The newly-minted proprietor responded without pause: he had to figure out a way to make a living while in Jordan and later in Syria when the time comes to return home.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this man had the key to the path forward for Syria's refugees. He had a vision, a way to make that vision real (he found an ice cream supplier in Amman), and the creative desire ("grit," perhaps) to make it happen. He is an entrepreneur, to be sure. But, if he was influencing others, some could rightly accuse him of being a leader.

Almost five months ago, I arrived in Jordan with jump ropes, boxes of crayons, and plenty of pity for Syria's children. Now, as I near the end of my time here, I realize that pity solves very little. This crisis needs a healthy dose of innovative thinking. I am talking about let's-some-sell-some-ice-cream-in-the-desert kinda thinking. Couple that with a goal, add some grit--which I suspect Syrian refugees have in abundance--and the ability to make the best of others' efforts and you have . . . leadership.

As this crisis stretches on, humanitarian assistance gives way to development efforts, and development will someday cede ground to durable solutions. When this crisis ends, Syria will not be rescued by pity, perfect answers, or quick-fixes. Syria will need educated people to help lift it.

Syria will need leaders. And what of Jordan?

Jordan is home to refugees not only from Syria, but those from Palestine and those fleeing sectarian strife in Iraq. Jordan's generosity serves as a regional stabilizing force. But, each regional crisis cannot continue to find safe harbor in Jordan. Although the Jordanian people have generosity in abundance, the country's economy and infrastructure are not nearly as welcoming. The breaking point is coming.

Jordanians can transform this breaking point into an opportunity for change. The various waves of refugees that Jordan welcomes without fail provides an opportunity to examine and refine the international community's response to refugee crises based on what we have learned. Jordan must continue to be an integral part of such a discussion. And Jordan's exceptional women and men will need to be at that discussion table ready to devise and implement long-term solutions that benefit it and its neighbors.

This brings me back to leadership. Leadership can help devise political and diplomatic strategies that just might allow opposing parties to reach across a divide. Leadership can restore regional stability and governance to countries coming apart at the seams.

Education gets us closer to leadership--but not all the way. The Syrian and Jordanian leaders of tomorrow will need something more to start a tide that lifts all boats.

While in high school in New York City, I participated in the Bishop's Leadership Project (BLP), a two-year leadership project consisting of a small number of hand-picked African-American students from Catholic schools throughout the city. The BLP's focus was singular: help create leaders that will serve the African-American community. We read a book a week in the summer, met with community leaders, participated in weekend retreats, organized service activities, and visited colleges. After the first year, we were given more responsibility to design and implement our programs. If I was not in school, I was with the BLP.

It was a second school. (Oh, joy.) But, because of that experience, I started to think it was possible that the child of uneducated Haitian immigrants could go to college and give meaning to that vague, yet incessant, parental plea "to make something better of yourself." What I learned in the BLP, it turns out, was just as important as what I learned in the classroom. This leadership experiment opened doors for me and then instilled in me the audacity to walk through those doors.

The BLP was a different time, a different place. But, the principles and habit of mind that I learned will stay with me. Those leadership principles--self-determination, rigor of thought, responsibility for your community, preparation and organization, teamwork--are time-tested and almost universally accepted in leadership-training circles.

Can we take those principles and formally apply them here in Jordan, where one humanitarian crisis now contends with another in Iraq?

Education and leadership training can help stabilize and reconstruct a region in crisis.

Let's dream big for a moment. And let's build a regional leadership institute in Jordan that will nurture young Jordanian and Syrian leaders. Let's bring together Jordanian and Syrian students in a summer-long program developed and implemented by those who do this best--a global institution of higher learning. Such an institution, in partnership with their Jordanian counterparts, would work together to put in a place a curriculum focused on instilling leadership skills that endure, empower, and enlarge esteem. The instructors would benefit from working and learning from one another, as would the students.

Collaboration and problem-solving would drive the curriculum, not a teacher lecturing at the front of the room. At its core, this program would focus on high engagement with a small group of students. The goal here, too, would be singular: enable participating students to effectively tackle the discussions and decisions that will affect their communities and region.

Such a program is not about advancing some foreign policy or grand geopolitical agenda--though, I suspect, many might think otherwise. It is not about giving anything remotely resembling a handout. Pity is not on this curriculum, experimentation is. This is about stabilizing and reconstructing, one leader at a time.