Be present. Notice. Have a dream. Vitea Leadership in Action March 2011

Where are you going? – How will you get there? – Who will help you?

These are question we were asked at the culmination of an intense three days in Windermere, and what a three days it was.  Twice a year a combination of 60 students and research staff at various stages in their careers and spanning all disciplines, are selected to attend the free residential leadership courses on offer by Vitae the research training council. This year I was privileged enough to be selected for this prestigious course and  apprehensively made my way to the beautiful surrounds of Lake Windermere for what was a significant learning and existential experience.

Taking a ‘learning by doing approach’ the course was divided into seminars, practical workshops, and home group activities. Over the course of three days we were challenged to lead, reflect, learn, experience and work as a team. Whilst a variety of theoretical perspectives exist, a key emphasis of the course was experiential learning, and we were continually split up into changing teams and faced with various challenges. I ended up leading two tasks (one through delegation) these were managing multiple tasks and leading in a crisis. Multiple tasks was quite a challenge and we failed to achieve the full points. It was a little disheartening and the skills involved blindfolds, sculptures, quizzes etc etc.. Leading in a crisis was where I really felt I shone and we managed to perform well. We were assigned a buddy – often from a completely different background (mine was a middle aged, Chinese engineering professor from Oxford who had been sent on the course because he had poor relationships with his students) The buddy would then act as a ‘mirror’ and provide 360 degree feedback on performance and a sounding board for reflection.

A key learning point for the course was the power of failure. Most tasks were pretty difficult to achieve and through our efforts we encountered both obstacles and triumphs.  We were advised we would both succeed and fail spectacularly. This was appropriate. This did show me that there were still things to be gained from situations that turned out badly, that it wasn’t how many times you failed but how many times you got up again.

In addition to the workshop we were assigned a home group task. In groups of six were assigned the challenge of delivering a fund raising initiative in just three days. We were given the sum of £100 and told to devise and initiate a campaign for a charity of our choice.  All teams were to present on the final night, and were assessed against a range of criteria with a winning team being announced and prizes given.

I was lucky enough to have a great team, who worked hard to get our idea up and running. Having been assigned the team leadership role I was extremely proud three days later when our idea: Webber’s Windermere Womble’s – we were raising money for the organisation shelterbox,  and won the challenge overall out of ten other teams, (with the help of some litter picking efforts and the use of social media) Whilst we didn’t reach our target the sum of £320.00 in less than three days was a good effort and the highest total overall, and our concept made a contribution to both local and global needs.

I signed up for the course I guess because I was never sure if I had the power to lead others. Somehow I often ended up sort of leading people, but I had never really pushed myself forward consciously. The course was an intense, challenging and exhausting three days. However I learnt a lot about myself. The feedback helped me to learn that sometimes I know what’s in my head, but other people sometimes don’t.  It taught me to try and draw on others and trust people rather than always doing things myself. It also taught me that in teams people have different needs and not everyone responds well to my creative, energetic autonomous approach to leadership if they are happier with security, certainty and direct instructions.

It also showed me that there are lots of things about me that make me an effective leader. Like the ability to motivate and inspire others, to support and energise, to see the bigger contextual picture and to supply vision. Luckily I had people in my team with opposite skills to my own which is also what made us so successful I think. Fundamentally, and perhaps most significantly the course taught me about the power of collaboration. We were from different backgrounds, perspective, experiences, and often cultures. Yet we came together and achieved. That was probably the biggest lesson. Our team didn’t spend our start up money yet through teamwork we managed to create and succeed with our existing resources – people.

There a lot of people who are often closed minded to this sort of approach – workshops, integration, random tasks. It requires faith, trust and buy-in to get anything back from it, but if you do I’m sure you will think its worth it.  In fact it was a challenge in the first few days to convince my buddy professor to listen to me. He spoke often of how stupid his students were and how he was frustrated with them. After three days with me.. (stop sniggering at the back)  he actually began to reconsider the ‘youth’ of today in a different light..to think differently, and to appreciate the person behind the ‘student’ role. In turn he taught me that whilst being ‘old skool’ there was a lot of wisdom, commitments and dedication behind the communication struggles. He was a gentler person. So was I. Once the course was complete I took a few days in the beautiful lakes to reflect on the experience. The Wombles have since disbanded but I’m still in touch with a few of them.

So, three months down the line is the experience still with me? I think yes. The course taught me that I have leadership potential, but that I won’t get there on my own. I’ve been increasingly thinking about the possibility of social enterprise, and this is not something I would have had the confidence to consider before the course. It made me realise that my pre-occupation with the potential for failure actually often prevents me from achieving or producing things. Most importantly, however my PhD works out, I think the principles we learnt on the course are transferable enough to benefit multiple aspects of my life. Being a PhD student is not just about writing and defending a thesis. The course should me how much potential all of us had to lead inspire, achieve and support each other and to achieve for the good of society regardless of our disciplines.

It made me proud of the people that I met, and proud to also be one of them. One of the best experiences of my university career for sure.

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