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Friday, June 10, 2011

Leadership and Learning

The Island


"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."

~John F Kennedy, US President (1961-1963)

Provided they are satisfied that it has no ulterior motives, the current leadership training and positive development programme conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence will find acceptance among all stakeholders, particularly students and parents. Of a number of interesting articles about the subject that I was able to read in The Island, two impressed me most: Major General (retired) Lalin Fernando’s "Leaders are not born – the army makes them" (Sunday Island of May 29, 2011) and Mr Rohan Fernando’s "Army leadership training" (The Island of May 25, 2011). The former gives an authoritative account of the training from the point of view of a sincere well-wisher who has been an experienced insider familiar with the practical processes involved, while the latter reminisces about some absorbing personal experiences that he enjoyed as a schoolboy on a cadet corps training course at Diyatalawa in the late 70’s; Mr Fernando ends his article with a request to parents: "Dear Parents, let your precious children be away from home for three weeks to find themselves." Major General Fernando quotes these words to preface his article . I don’t think anything more should be written to convince those who look askance at the ongoing leadership and positive attitude development programme. My purpose here is to offer some ideas about what is involved in it from an educational point of view.

But first, let me explain away any fears that this is going to be a kind of military training. The inclusion of the word "army" in the titles of the two articles mentioned above would be disconcerting to some, though it need not be so. The word might make them imagine that the young men and women enrolled for the course of training are going to be put through some dangerous combat exercises involving the use of firearms, grenades, etc. Both the authors have made it clear that nothing of the sort will happen. But the invocation of the military through the word "army" resonates with most of us of the older generation including the authors of the articles referred to, I’m sure: we involuntarily associate the army with a high standard of discipline, orderliness, honesty, bravery, and firmness. In the popular mind, ‘army training’ is automatically assumed to inculcate these qualities in the trainees.

Every year about 400,000 children start their formal education by finding admission to the school system. Annually, the number who sit the GCE (AL) averages around 200,000. The state universities can accommodate only about 20,000 of the successful candidates, which amounts to just 5% of the original 400,000. This year, the university intake is said to be in the region of 22,000. The whole group will be handled in two batches of roughly 10,000 each for the leadership and positive attitude development course. The programme will cost the government Rs 185 million. (I owe this information to ozlanka.com). It is for the first time in the history of university education in Sri Lanka that a leadership training camp of this kind has been organized.

The designers of the ongoing leadership and attitude development programme aim to free the new students from what they call the "GCE (AL) mindset". These students are the latest crop of university undergraduates produced by a largely rote-learning based, examination-oriented education system, which is in need of a radical overhaul. Most of them, if not all, must have attended private tuition classes that their parents managed to pay for. There is no doubt that private tuition providers are meeting an important national educational need, and the students are not wrong to make use of their services. At the same time the state university system cannot accommodate all those who pass the examination, and as a result, it has to restrict the intake to manageable limits by raising entry requirements. This leads to competition among the university aspirants for the limited number of places available in the system. It is this narrow individualistic competition which the private tutors feed. This sort of educational environment is not likely to contribute to the realization of the ultimate goal of education, which is the development of self-reliant, outward looking, socially collaborative seekers after knowledge, and responsible, productive, well adjusted citizens ready to take up leadership in society.

Who is a leader? Is a leader born or made? Many of us who are usually not too worried about fine definitions are able to tell a leader from a non-leader, and this ability may be due to our intuition, experience, or education. On the basis of this common familiarity with what kind of persons are deemed to be leaders, and how hard to come by they usually are, some people say that leaders are born, not made, and express great scepticism about the prospect of training persons to be leaders.

There are born leaders, just as there are born physicians, born teachers, born orators, and born athletes, to suggest a few examples. We call certain people born cricketers, born musicians, born physicists etc in the sense that individuals described by those terms possess a special innate ability (to learn) to perform activities relevant to their fields better than their peers in the same circumstances.

In any field of activity, we use skills. There may be among us persons with a natural flair for performing tasks involving special talents. But this doesn’t mean that everything should be left to be accomplished by those individuals while the others are just idly waiting by. Such a thing is unthinkable in the real world. What normally happens is that skills are acquired through learning and practice. The ability to lead is also a skill. It’s no ordinary skill. It’s in fact a complex set of skills. Since any skill can be learned, leadership can be learned too. This means that leaders are more often made than born.

Again, there might be objectors saying "But, should everybody become a leader? If everyone is a leader, where are the followers for them to lead? Though not every individual at whatever level of society they happen to be (school, university, workplace, village, city and so on) will be required to become a designated leader, they should be ready to assume that responsibility if and when the need arises. In a well governed, egalitarian, democratic society free from discrimination and disharmony, every citizen should be as ready to lead as to be led for the common good. Older readers might remember these lines from popular singer Victor Ratnayake’s hit song "api okkoma rajawaru" of the latter half the 70’s decade: "api okkoma rajawaru okkoma wesiyo – thun sinhalayama naedayo" "We are all kings; we are all subjects – All of us of the tri-Sinhale are relatives (i.e. all Sri Lankans are of one family, of one blood)". The Leadership and Positive Attitude Development programme that has been launched by the government may be seen as a significant step towards achieving that ideal society.

It is only when two or more people gather to accomplish a common task that (the need for) a leader emerges. The leader guides the group (of two or more) towards arriving at a set goal by forging it into an efficiently functioning unit. Experts say that leadership is a group property; excellent leadership demonstrates itself through the excellent performance of the group.

Bela Banathy (1919-2003), a Hungarian-American linguist and systems scientist, was the founder of White Stag Leadership Development, a non-profit leadership training programme in the US. His leadership training model for youth was adopted throughout the country. The thesis Banathy wrote as a part of his Master’s degree in counselling psychology at San Jose State University (where he later became a professor) was entitled "A Design for Leadership Development in Scouting" in which he identified 80 skills that go to make a leader. He condensed these into 11 competencies as follows:

* Getting and Giving Information

* Understanding Group Needs and Characteristics

* Knowing and Understanding Group Resources

* Controlling the Group

* Counseling

* Setting the Example

* Representing the Group

* Planning

* Evaluation

* Sharing Leadership

* Manager of Learning

Though Banathy describes these in detail, they may be taken as self-explanatory for our purposes. But "Knowledge of or the ability to manage the learning of any or several of these competencies does not a leader make. What makes a leader is the degree to which the competency is an integral characteristic of an individual and the degree to which it influences the individual’s behaviour or (and by inference, his values)".

Banathy also isolates three key functions for the leader: authority, responsibility, and accountability. Authority means the right to make decisions; responsibility is being assigned a goal to achieve; and accountability consists in accepting success or failure.

For someone who wants to make a difference in life, nothing is more important than a change in attitude. Attitude here means the way one thinks and behaves towards someone or something. Developing the right attitude is indispensable for a leader. The following five key principles have been enunciated by Orrin Woodward, who is co-founder of Team, a leadership development and training company as essential for a leadership aspirant to develop a positive disposition (Comments following the colon after each item are mine):

* Develop a thankful spirit: While intent on improving our situation in life, we need first to focus on the good things we already have, and feel happy. A popular Sinhala song has words which mean: "I lamented the lack of a pair of shoes until I saw a man without his legs"

* Be careful about your friends: Who doesn’t know the identical local equivalent of the American saying "If you hang out with dogs, you get fleas"?

* Focus on serving others: Too much concern with your own welfare makes you feel inadequate and insecure; sparing a thought for others’ problems and difficulties enables you to understand and deal with your own problems better, while helping a fellow human being.

* Stay active: A good way to maintain physical as well as mental health.

* Have a purpose: Having something to achieve makes your life more meaningful, organized, and exciting.

We all know about the special circumstances which led to the conceptualization and implementation of a leadership and attitude development programme like this at considerable cost to the state (which means the public). This is one sore issue that parents are anxiously waiting for politicians of all parties to help sort out in the national interest without trying to make political capital out of it. They should not stand in the way of this programme.

From the national integration point of view one can hardly imagine a better opportunity than this for the youth of the country to experience the warmth of their common humanity and their shared goals and aspirations as Sri Lankans. Quite rightly, the participants are prohibited from discussing politics or religion.

These young students, and probably even many of their parents, grew up in a country constantly plagued with insecurity and tension. As children they hardly had an opportunity to leave the protective shadow of their parents, and be on their own; entrenched tuition culture robbed them of "the half hour - That a child counts so much when saved from work", to adapt Robert Frost’s lines from his poem "Out, Out - " substituting ‘child’ for ‘boy’. They probably had little time to receive any kind of leadership or personality development guidance from their parents and teachers who, though, are invariably the foremost role models in that area in a child’s life.

While writing this today (7th June) I heard, as reported in Swarnavahini TV’s ‘Live at 12’ news broadcast on the Internet (I am writing from Australia), Higher Education Minister Mr S.B. Dissanayake declare quite confidently at a meeting in Kandy that the present batch of students, when they complete their university education at the end of four years, will be assured of employment with their mastery of English and computer; according to the Minister, the students currently following the leadership training programme, will be directed to 321 regional centres to receive English language and computer instruction, which they will supplement once they start university. The weaker half of the students (i.e. weaker in English and IT, presumably because of previous lack of opportunity to learn those subjects), who number 10,000, will be given additional coaching by American and local experts on a distance learning basis, and they will each get a free laptop for the purpose. With sufficient English and computer knowledge thus acquired they will be able to easily embark on an endless treasure hunt in the world of knowledge.

The follow-up study period after the leadership training will enable the freshers to brush up their English and computer skills in preparation for their life in the university. They will enter through the portals of academia with a sense of confidence that some of their seniors did not feel at the beginning. It will mostly be due to the training. However, among the senior students there must be many who didn’t actually need such training; it is equally likely that among this year’s selectees there are those who may be exempted from the course. But it is certain that no one would like to miss out on it.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the senior students and the university authorities including the teachers cooperate the successful integration of the juniors into a happy learning environment without any untoward incidents creating unpleasantness among them won’t be a problem. It is then that the crème de la crème of the Sri Lankan youth for this year will be able to put to the test what they must have discovered about themselves (i.e. their talents, personal worth, potential, etc) during the leadership and positive attitude training course. That surely will be the dawn of a new era in the history of university education in this country.

Who is a leader? Is a leader born or made? Many of us who are usually not too worried about fine definitions are able to tell a leader from a non-leader, and this ability may be due to our intuition, experience, or education. On the basis of this common familiarity with what kind of persons are deemed to be leaders, and how hard to come by they usually are, some people say that leaders are born, not made, and express great scepticism about the prospect of training persons to be leaders.