Developing Confident and Sustainable Leadership
The stairs leading up to the leadership training room are precarious – a thin layer of cement over rebar – no railing. At the top is a landing with large double doors that pull open to a wide, cool space. I pause outside, looking in: a room under construction. Cement walls, no paint. The ceiling overhead is a tin roof nailed to rafters. Sunlight seeps in at the edges.
Francis Magige pushes past me, clambering in.
“Ah! A big room, for our big ideas!”
I smile, and step in. Francis’ enthusiasm always delights me.
“Yes, a big room for our big ideas!”
And it’s true – we have big ideas about how to develop sustainable leadership, and they are beginning to really take off.
Our Feedback series was the first of our big ideas. We recognized that innovation and adaptation are critical components to sustainable leadership. Leaders must be able to develop new courses of action and adapt old ones to meet project goals within an ever changing environment. Feedback is one of the critical components that fuels innovation and adaption. We saw a Feedback series as the first step in developing innovative leaders capable of high quality strategic decision making.
In the beginning, we also decided to focus training only on positive feedback and praise. We hoped this would create an environment where people would feel free to share their ideas and concerns. Fostering a safe and positive working environment is particularly important here in Kenya where corrupt leaders often silence feedback they believe undermines their position or power (see John Weisiko’s blog on the Risks of Giving Feedback in Kenya).
During our first season here, Chelsea and I presented the positive feedback curriculum in the form of a skeletal draft. We worked in collaboration with the Training Team to revise the curriculum and make it more relevant to the local context. Being scheduled for a month’s leave (designed to prevent burnout), we left the Training Team with a well-developed series of Thursday Feedback sessions they would facilitate while we were gone. A Training Team member was also assigned to each program to facilitate Focus Projects. (Focus Projects were developed to help staff directly apply the skills and knowledge they learn in official trainings to their work. Program Leaders and Field Managers met once a week to debrief major activities they performed and practiced giving team-level feedback.) That’s when everything changed.
Our one month leave did more than give us rest and relaxation; it offered the Kenyan staff a chance to manage operations completely on their own. This included the Training Team, who continued to lead the Feedback skill building sessions and Focus Projects in our absence.
Upon returning to the project, the Training Team came to Chelsea and me with some urgent requests.
“We need you to train us in confidence.”
Chelsea and I were confused. “Train you in confidence? What do you mean?”
“Well,” they began, “we’ve been training the staff based on the curriculum you’ve given us. But now they are really coming to us, asking so many questions we cannot answer because we didn’t develop the curriculum ourselves from the beginning. We don’t know how to respond. We only know what we’ve prepared to teach, but we don’t know the rest behind it. We need to do research, we need to study psychology, and we need to be trained in how to provide guidance!”
Just as the training team was coming to us with these requests, Chelsea and I began to read the works of Paulo Freire. In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire gives this warning about those in an “oppressed” situation:
“…the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world, the more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is…” (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1994, pg. 54)
“Adapting to the world as it is” is the last thing we wanted the Training Team to do! We want to equip them with the capacity to transform that world! The Training Team was right. Even though Chelsea and I had involved them in the revision of the curriculum, even though we were covering a lot of ground, and even though they were utilizing their facilitation skills in a masterful way, they were still primarily positioned as passive implementers of the curriculum, not as co-creators. Unless we worked with them to create the curriculum from scratch, unless we facilitated their discovery of “why” they were training what they were training, they would struggle to lead people in a more meaningful and effective way.
The Feedback series, combined with our absence, had provided our team with an opportunity to take an active role in their world. Ironically, even as they focused on the positive, the areas of success, they were able to naturally make the connection to the areas where they needed to improve. The safety provided in the positive feedback sessions allowed them to freely talk about the observations for improvement they were making.
As a result, we returned to newly strengthened leaders. Staff members were openly sharing ideas, questions and concerns with the Training Team in a way they hadn’t before. They also began to request to be more fully included in the decision making process. They started pushing back on the American staff with questions and concerns. And this is where our other big idea comes in – we as the American Nuru staff are more than happy to listen to our local counterparts as peers when they give us feedback. And we are more than committed to letting go when we need to let go so they can step into the driver’s seat and lead themselves out of extreme poverty.