A big Ask
Life, learning & leadership
Wright, N. (2020), 'A Big Ask: Life, Learning & Leadership', Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, 11 May.
The mantra in the learning and development field when I did my own professional training was to focus on some variation of ASK – the Attitude, Knowledge and Skills needed to do a job well. The conversation and language has moved on since to performance, competencies and talent, but the basic pragmatic, functional orientation has remained the same. It’s about learning to think and do well in order to succeed. Rapid advances in technology have helped push knowledge and skill to the forefront of the learning equation, with the attitude dimension tending to focus more on personal behaviours that enable task or career-goal achievement, than on broader ethical considerations.
And, then, along came the climate emergency…the plastic in the oceans’ disaster…the Covid 19 pandemic, in quick succession. People, organisations, governments and multilateral institutions have been forced to stop and look again at the local and global consequences of our actions. For the first time in modern times, the wealthier nations of the world have experienced something of the anxiety and vulnerability experienced by the poorer nations every day of every year. It represents a crisis of vision, of leadership, of practice. It presents a critical learning challenge and opportunity, where ethics and values are central in creating a new and very different sustainable future – together.
We find ourselves navigating unchartered waters with an unexpected wake-up call, a shudder, a jolt. A serious risk now, psychologically and culturally, is that we try subconsciously to hold on tightly, to revert back to where we felt more confident, comfortable and certain before. Learning to live with anxiety, with discomfort and with not-knowing, will take radically different qualities of awareness, character, humility and courage. Learning and organisation development will need to nurture and enable critical reflexivity and critical reflective practice, incorporating deep ethical, spiritual-existential and systemic dimensions, not simply conventional knowledge and skills development.
This will call for new and different forms of leadership too, actively seeking and inviting honest critique from diverse stakeholder perspectives and fostering vision where values mean so much more than posters on websites and office walls. We have seen glimpses of positive public responses to values-in-action, most visibly in the UK to the bravery and teamwork of National Health and other key workers on the Coronavirus front line. People standing and clapping on doorsteps, people sponsoring the now-legendary Captain Tom Moore, speak profoundly to a vision and values based on courage, compassion and collaboration, a yearning for something deeper than status and profit.
Against this new and evolving foreground, the wealthier countries can learn a great deal from the poorer countries. For too long, we have relied on material and technological improvements that, in spite of their many great benefits, have failed to fulfil deeper human needs for purpose, meaning and relationship. We have accepted an end-justifies-the-means philosophy wholesale without pausing long enough to question whether the ends, never mind the means, are ethical, worthwhile or sustainable. Learning and organisation development have too often followed blindly, making the same assumptions and accepting the same beliefs and practices without fundamental critique.
So let's make this personal.
I've had the immense privilege of working alongside ‘Jasmin’, a woman in the Philippines from a very poor background, who speaks with a very different voice. She has a radical learning and leadership style grounded deeply in vision and values. When she's teaching and training, she prays to Jesus then poses an intensely-provocative challenge: ‘You are the hope of the nation!’ And she means it. This isn’t empty rhetoric. It’s a profound belief and conviction vis a vis the purpose of life, education and success; a call to individuals to look beyond their own interests; to live out ethical values – whatever the cost; to learn and contribute their best to spiritual, social, economic and political transformation.
I’m reminded of Paulo Freire’s now-classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). As an educationalist, Freire noticed how people and societies keep repeating patterns; even though those patterns don’t serve them well. He realised that, without conscious critical thinking, people and groups typically default subconsciously to that which is familiar to them. When faced with an opportunity for real change, they simply replicate what went before. I believe the world faces a similar Kairos moment now. Jasmin’s approach represents a distinctive model for learning and organisation development; combining spiritual-existential, critical reflexivity and radical leadership to be and do something new.
Her stance creates an existential context, a meaning-making platform for everything that flows from it. Unlike dry, institution-imposed systems and targets, she looks deeply into the eyes of each and every individual and invites them: to question everything; to live out their God-given call and talent with passion and integrity; to choose to exercise radical personal responsibility; to actively support others in releasing their potential; to contribute their very best to the world. It couldn’t be more different to sterile teaching and training in wealthier countries that focus mostly on individual-centric academic achievement, job effectiveness, career advancement, professional status or increased pay.
Jasmin models what she says and an encounter with her can feel inspiring...and terrifying.
So, what can we learn from this extraordinary woman to transform our own thinking and practice? First, reflect critically on our own fundamental purpose and that of our clients – What is the difference we, and they, are here to make? Second, behave consistently with our true values – How shall we do this? Third, act collaboratively for ethical, holistic, mutual benefit – How can we create the best synergies, with and for others? Fourth, be brutally honest – What are the potential risks or unintended consequences of our and our clients’ actions? Finally, pray hard - Are we willing to model and ensure the deepest, broadest critical reflexivity; whatever the personal or professional cost?
Be safe, but not too safe.
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