Lacklustre leadership not our lot in life

| October 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Sharon van Reenen

In South Africa – and the world – traits such as authenticity, altruism and accountability are displayed by so few that I challenge you to name more than a handful of leaders who display these qualities consistently.

Our students have few leaders to emulate. Nelson Mandela is little more than a historic figure to most of them – Madiba is not ‘Tata’ to millions of our teens. The ‘born free’1 generation we teach observes leaders in the news and, more alarmingly, on reality television shows. Politicians’ regular headline-making antics, The Real Housewives of… wherever2 and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo3 expose our youngsters to the worst leading characters ever. Madiba’s leadership has systematically been diluted with disappointingly ubiquitous examples of an ‘about me, take all’ mindset. In the past, a leader needed a high intelligence quotient and demonstrable strength. Now, authentic leaders need emotional, adversity and spiritual intelligence to cure this social ill.

We must target the youth Peter Laburn lamented that “we live in a world that accepts that this is just the way things are; we are victims of circumstance who cannot change or be changed; this is the way life is”.4 An unconstrained leader will look at intolerable situations, agree that they are not acceptable and want to fix them.

This alone is reason to invest in enriching leadership programmes in schools. We need to convince our youth that this is a productive attitude and, hopefully, in the process we will convince South African youth to stay put in their homeland after school so that they can contribute to, and build, a brave new nation and world. What is the adult’s role in creating these fabulous leaders? We all know that one cannot lead anyone further than one has gone oneself. Leadership education has often been adultfocused and in schools may only begin in Grade 11.

However, the sooner skills are learnt, the more confident the child will be, the more leadership potential the child will demonstrate and the more chance there is that leading becomes the child’s selffulfilled prophecy. Leadership ‘training’ should therefore begin at the earliest opportunity, so that each person will go further than we thought possible and sooner than we ever expected, even in the pre-primary phase. Any game initiated on a Grade 0 playground will showcase leadership at full tilt – usually dictatorial, but there for all participants to test, taste and challenge.

The one who proposes the game, gathers the followers, constantly changes the rules to suit the situation, and the easily bored one, who makes a counter-proposal after a few minutes of reflection and influences the players to change to another game, are the stuff of presidents. The ‘politics’ happening on jungle gyms is hardcore leadership!

Leadership training not a once-off
Have you pondered your school’s duty to fulfilling humanity’s desperate need for future authentic, honest, courageous, visionary leaders? To date, leadership consciousness at too many schools is boxed into a once-a-year weekend (or slightly longer) camp wherein the learners fling themselves off cliffs and hike many miles, and the leader is the ‘alpha male’ by virtue of fitness and strength and possibly academic prowess.

Said student meets staff and coach predictions and all is right with the world. The headmaster and staff then take credit for having done their bit, secure that in future it will all be done again in exactly the same ‘tried and tested’ way, at possibly the same destination next year, despite the colossal change in the way that children process and experience this 21st-century world.

Leadership interwoven through the curriculum
It is all very well my banging on about the kind of leaders we need and what schools should not be doing. Let me share with you what Uplands College near White River in Mpumalanga has chosen to do to get our children to the front when leadership opportunity arises. We believe that we must deal with the essence of leadership. Leadership programmes used in schools should be about “children understanding that their training is not about obtaining answers and immediate success, but about contemplating the right questions”,5 such as do I respect other people? Do I trust them to achieve something meaningful? Do I inspire hope and vision in a team?

Do I value inclusiveness, and who do I influence, why and how? A few years ago, based on our research and growing out of such questions, our student body selected five qualities they valued most in life. Respect, acceptance, friendship, honesty and pride are the pillars on which we base as much of our teaching, learning and living together as possible, believing that each one of them, if practised, is a component of an excellent relationship and the basis for compelling leadership. The curriculum requires that our children spend much time evaluating their attitudes towards their peers, parents, elders and statesmen. They reflect on their ability to influence others positively.

Building incrementally
Our strategy is structured. We begin our leadership programme in Grade 8 with a lengthy orientation programme, graduation and camp where tribal identity is explored, tested and established. Life orientation as a school subject is vital in introducing concepts such as self-esteem, pride and belonging. This subject helps the children round off experiences and, more importantly, reflect on lessons learned. It is all very well having all those stimuli and then no time in which to ponder strengths – for affirmation – and failures – for improvement – so intermittently we host what we call intervention or ‘injection’ days.

As our headmaster, Austin Clarke, says: “We take time from our academic timetable for education to take place.” In most cases, outsiders are invited to share their expertise in respecting oneself, one another and members of the wider community. In Grade 9, throughout the year, the students explore attitudes and actions of successful people and head off mid-year on a ‘mini-journey’ that tests some of those qualities. The following year, the English department picks up the baton and exposes Grade 10s to leadership through struggle and strength in adversity via the syllabus. At the end of the year, the children head off into the ‘near’ wilderness to test their inner strength on a 14-day cross-discipline outdoor experience. The results of this journey are tangible. Once the students have got over the ‘shock’ of it all, they discover that they have explored their weaknesses and their response to seeing weakness in others, and can celebrate their strengths and that of their peers.

This newly discovered inner strength means that the Grade 11s are ready for purely leadership based contact time – one hour per cycle. Initially, we host as many guest speakers as we can source, all of whom address the children on any aspect they choose on the broad concept of ‘leadership’. Halfway through the year, we refocus the students’ attention onto their personal success, with a programme that is designed to evaluate and extend their personal performance in life.

Naturally, the Grade 12s are given many opportunities to practise what they have been taught, as captains of their teams, chairmen of their societies and, predictably, the mentor body. Where safer to flex one’s muscles, make errors and learn from them than at school? We have realised the significance of this final year as students grapple with learning exemplary leadership behaviours in their matric year.

We will follow these new leaders We have bred the most confident generation yet: they have been seen and heard since birth. In all things, their opinion has been invited, heard and considered. It is time for our students to step up and become the leaders we would gladly follow. With our guidance, they can be those leaders. 

Sharon van Reenen teaches English at Uplands College near White River in Mpumalanga.

Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2013

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