UKEdMag: Courageous Leadership and rock climbing by @rondelle10_b

During this academic year, I was fortunate enough to sign on to a Courageous Leadership Programme which was devised by Diana Osagie via the National College of School Leadership. It was co-organised with the educational consultant Ankhara Lloyd Hunte and head teachers, Nicola Haynes and Chinye Jibunoh. It is the second year of the programme, which has been designed to develop more Black Minority Ethnic women into leadership roles.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 UKEd Magazine.

Click here to freely read online, or click here to purchase printed editions.

The course took place between October 2015 to June 2016 and was primarily ran as a series of twilight or weekend sessions which covered a number of different aspects to develop our collective leadership qualities. What I loved most about the programme was the practical nature of it. Everything we explored was then carried out in practice. This included mock interview practices, presentation developments and games to identify how we would operate as leaders.

One of the most significant experiences during the programme was the 2 day residential in October. At the time, I was distracted by a number of events outside of school. This meant that I neglected to ask the myriad of questions which I usually do and just turned up at the designated location. In my mind, I assumed that being a ‘leadership residential’ meant that the most we would do is stand outside on the grass playing team games… How wrong I was! We did play team games on the grass but that was only to warm up us during the afternoon of the first day.

I wasn’t forewarned about any activity. Perhaps that was the best approach since I have a fear of heights, a dislike of trekking in the dark and can lose patience when I am not sure what is going on. What I did not realise, was that I would repeatedly experience all of these things.

To highlight the leadership qualities that were developed during the residential, I will review some of the ’10 traits of Courageous Leaders’ by Susan Tardanico (@susantardanico) to outline the significant aspects that I had learnt during the weekend.

Demonstrating leadership courage.

Susan describes this as ‘communicating when you don’t have all the answers since this kind of behaviour fosters trust and sets a crucial example for others to follow’ during challenging times. I relate this to one particular group activity that I chose to lead even though I didn’t have any of the answers to help the group. It was an ‘avoid the river fire’ version of the farmer, chicken, fox and grain puzzle. I stepped forward in order to challenge myself and think out of the box. One group member was a whizz at solving these type of puzzles. So I left her in charge of noting what we had to do in order to get safely across the ‘burning river’. It was an uncomfortable feeling as I was the leader with a specific outcome yet no answers to achieve it. However, this allowed me to manage the team as they generated ideas of how we could collectively solve the puzzle. This experience shifted my paradigm, of having to be the one with all the answers. Later on, I recognised that this presented an opportunity for me to develop more of my own problem solving and analytical skills so that I can gain more confidence in this regard.

Key learning: listen, use the talents within your team and keep up regular communications to chart progress even when you don’t have all the answers.

Seek feedback and listen.

This brings me to the rock climbing experience. To put this into context, I have absolutely no head for heights. All my previous rock wall climbing experiences have failed miserably!

I managed to keep the sheer panic from my face as we were shown how to remain safe as we climbed. However internally, the doubts were setting in.

None the less, I decided to give it a go and push my own boundaries.

What became immediately clear was that my trainers were unsuitable for rock climbing as they lacked the necessary grip required to secure my footing. The higher I climbed up the rocks, the harder it became to see where I should place my hands and feet in order to continue. This is where the rest of the group were invaluable. Initially I could not focus as I was focusing on what I needed to do and trying to avoid being overwhelmed with panic. Team members who were closest to me got my attention by calling my name, and then provided one piece of feedback that helped me progress onto the next steps. There was one part of the rock face in which there seemed to be no way forward. After several minutes of wondering what to do then placing my hands and feet in different positions, it was with sheer grit, determinations and shouting that I hauled myself out of the crevice. By this point, Ankhara had walked to the summit and was calling out encouragement from above. This helped as a guiding voice and provided the motivation I needed to complete the climb. I felt ridiculously pleased until I looked down and then felt shaken. However, with the collective support of my team, I had successfully completed a rock climb for the first time in my life.

Key learning: avoid being put off by previous failures, use the correct equipment to reach your goal, get team members to give you feedback, act on the feedback and have someone in place to give you encouragement.

Say what needs to be said.

We all took turns to lead different activities and demonstrated different leadership styles.

I remember one activity where we had to use ropes as levers to place a small container of liquid into a larger container and then move it to a ‘secure area’. That was a tough challenge for a variety of reasons. Many of us had different ideas about what should be done and sometimes simultaneously shared our ideas! However it was important to remember who was actually leading the challenge and should therefore direct us all. This particular activity helped me voice what I felt should be said so that we could successfully complete the challenge.

Key learning: Choose the right moment to say what needs to be said and say it clearly enough for all to hear.

Make decisions and move forward.

Time constraints for all activities gave us the impetus to complete each challenge as quickly as we could. Whenever we experienced any issues that were holding us back, it was up to us as a team to resolve it and then move on. This sometimes meant that we had to look at things from different perspectives. For example, once we have navigated our way around a low rope walking assault course, we then had to resolve how we would all carry a tray of water from one end to the other without spilling a single drop…

Key Learning: assign roles on the course we felt most comfortable with, remember we are all dependent upon each other and occasionally we have to work collaboratively to cross the most challenging parts of the course.

Give credit to others.

I think that this is what helped to mould the group as a unit by the end of the residential.

We were able to recognise strengths in each other that were previously unknown.

Praise allowed us to openly acknowledge the skills we each brought to the team.

Key Learning: never underestimate the impact of genuine praise.

Another key learning point as a leader is that people watch you. Sometimes it is done to gauge how they themselves should respond to an event. This was demonstrated when others within my group watched me as a measure of how well they could do the high rope walking challenge. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried, squealed and yelped as I approached each part of the seemingly never ending challenge. In spite of this, I managed my anxiety levels with positive thoughts running through my mind, slowly tackling each part of the course and managing my breathing. The experience of such acute levels of anxiety made me able to immediately emphasise when one team member was too scared to cross one part of the same course. Everyone was shouting suggestions which made her even more panicked. Eventually, I was able to calmly and clearly explain what she should do as I guided her through the same techniques that I had used. When she froze, I suggested for her to return to the wooden post, gather her thoughts and take her time. I recognised that when a person is feeling anxious or scared, they can not hear any of the advice that is being shared. It is just one thing too many to deal with.

The experience was a humbling one and I came back a different person.

My colleagues and I were given many challenges to help us face our fears, which included rock climbing, low rope walking (with ropes and beams 10 feet above the ground) and high rope climbing activities approximately 30 feet in the air. I learnt that not being forewarned about any of activities until it was time to do them was the best course of action. I now think as a leader, not knowing everything in advance is not a hindrance as I would have over-thought the situation and not been as receptive as I was.

I am still scared of heights however, I was astounded to see how many of my self limiting beliefs were broken that weekend. In turn, has helped me to view challenges in a different way.

It highlighted that in many cases, the clichés are true. It is a case of ‘mind over matter’ and ‘what we believe we achieve’.

I think that I can now call myself a courageous leader.

Bukky Yusuf @rondelle10_b is a London based Associate Assistant Head Teacher in charge of the NQT/ITT development programme and IT to enhance teaching & learning. She is also a Secondary Science Consultant, qualified coach and registered as a leadership coach as part of a pilot run by the Department for Education.

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