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Shackleton and Me!

Shackleton
As an organisation psychologist I have many years experience of working in environments where leadership was an issue, in most cases this was in organisations undergoing planned transformation or experiencing forced change. Whole systems often needed to change …….. and Leadership was usually the engine helping or hindering the change.
Then in 2007 my wife and I founded Nepal Schools Aid, a UK charity dedicated to improving the primary education system in Nepal. We were divided geographically with UK being the base for fundraising, and Nepal being the base for operations and implementation. The UK part was lean and voluntarily staffed. The Nepal part needed to be staffed with highly educated, competent, committed, local staff who were tough minded, honest, committed, and unafraid to “take on” the establishment.
I needed help, and one of the “models” I turned to was Ernest Shackleton’s eight facets of leadership described in a previous post and here is the list again:

1. The Values Path
2. Recruit Outstanding People
3. Create A Spirit Of Teamwork
4. Develop Individuals
5. Inspire Optimism
6. Assignment Teams
7. Use The Big Picture
8. Leave A Legacy

Each of these eight was used in a carefully planned manner, though not in the sequence first listed by Morell and Capparell.

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1. We began by using Factors 7 & 8, Big Picture and Legacy. We were not interested in building a school or two or of sponsoring a few poor children to attend school; we intended to influence the Ministry of Education to completely change its primary system. We also knew that sustainability was an issue, not sustainable funding, but of leaving behind a strategy, programme, and human resource that would be a legacy for Nepal to use themselves into the future. Weeks were spent researching this, what were the components, the best options, where to find help, the stages to go through and the processes to use.

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2. Next came Factors 1 & 2, building the Nepal organisation with the right values and the right people. They did NOT have to be education experts, but they DID have to be people who cared about their country and the education of young people, have a sense that there had to be a better way, be people of integrity, flexible, have an internal belief in respect, and most of all have an insatiable thirst for learning. Maybe unsurprisingly in Kathmandu the only people who fitted these requirements were female, under 30, had MEd qualifications, and a little teaching experience. Within 12 months we had a team of eight, two of whom were in leadership roles themselves and had been to the UK for specialist training. They also worked on the creation of our school development programmes with UK education experts.

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3. Factor 4, Develop Individuals was a core theme for us as every staff member had a personal development plan and track, received personal coaching, and developed through personal projects which were balanced 50:50 between advancing the organisations programmes and becoming the team expert in that topic. For example one staff member researched cognitive acceleration, developed a training course on it related to maths teaching, then trained the rest of the team in it. Someone else researched the same sequence for Phonics based language learning. Imagine the individual, team and organisation development as this proceeded year after year!

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4. Factor 3, Creating A Spirit of Teamwork was accomplished by making Friday a special day of the week, every week. On Fridays the whole team would come together and share their personal experiences and their learning from that week. They would use The Kolb Learning Cycle with its 4 stages beginning with describing their experiences and culminating in how they had changed or adapted for improvement. In this way each individual’s learning was assimilated into team and whole organisation learning too, but as you could probably imagine a culture of openness, humility, sharing, helping, achieving was also being developed.

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5. Factor 6, Assignment Teams was a natural progression from Factor 3. What was often exposed during the Friday learning reviews was a need for a change to a programme, a process, a new piece of research, or even a new course or new programme. There was never any need to “allocate” resources to such assignments since it was a natural flow from the whole of Friday! In this way assignments to develop a community programme for parents, a teacher assessment process, a student perception test, a counselling skills course, a parent problem solving programme were all developed.

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6. Factor 5, Inspire Optimism, is the most essential leadership ingredient. Throughout the entire duration of the Nepal Schools Aid work in Nepal there was indifference and negativity from most major stakeholders. Principals were reluctant to attend training, teachers avoided implementing new skills, the District Education Offices put obstacles in our way, the Ministry of Education ignored us and our achievements, large INGOs refused to consider our research findings. There is no satisfactory or logical explanation for any of this, but the potential for our young team drowning under the weight of it was enormous. There was only one way to deal with it from myself; laugh at it, make light of it, give reassurance that we had the best programmes and best educationalists in the country, focus on the long game, hold the moral high ground, be a champion of high standards and quality, but most of all ……. back your staff to the hilt. Praise them, reward them, highlight their achievements. This does NOT mean being soft with them, tough love is the expression, and make them fight like hell to show the establishment how wrong they are.


So having read how we applied Shackleton’s Way you are fully entitled to ask “did you succeed?” Well, based on our long term goal of influencing the Ministry of Education to change its primary education system…… the answer is “no, we did not succeed”. In fact it seemed like the more successful we were at improving teacher skills, developing leadership skills in school principals, improving school governance, uplifting the quality of education in 200 schools, informing parent communities of the value of education, introducing moral education and formative assessment into schools, publishing research papers ……… the more intransigent and negative towards us The Ministry became. Funny that, isn’t it! But at least we have this much in common with Shackleton himself.

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