Well-known coach Martha Beck said: “Humans of all ages work best and learn best when we are engaging with real-world issues with all our senses with people we love in real situations.”
Soon after discovering this quote, I received news that Ridwan Samodien, a participant in one of my firm’s leadership development programs, was recognized for his leadership with one of the most prestigious awards in South African education. Martha is right! We learn best when we are tackling real-world issues with people we love.
Since 2010, we have been facilitating a leadership development program in South Africa that creates the opportunity for business leaders to work with school principals to engage with real-world issues in under-resourced schools across the country. We are intentional about creating learning communities of love and belonging where business and education leaders can experience what it feels like to be seen, heard, and loved by colleagues and peers who care about their well-being.
So far, more than 3,400 leaders have participated in this year-long facilitated leadership development program, and it has touched more than one and a half million lives in and around more than 1,700 under-resourced schools.
South Africa’s education system is failing the majority of children in South Africa. This is largely because the adults in the system have not been adequately equipped for their very challenging task, and most principals feel overwhelmed by what they are being asked to do.
This is a significant challenge in South Africa, and it is, therefore, a significant risk to the country. We need to mobilize all the support that we can to turn this situation around.
It is widely acknowledged that these principals face enormous complexities and have to deal with many ambiguous challenges on a daily basis. Most principals have never had a chance to benefit from leadership development programs, and many feel overwhelmed by the challenges they are expected to manage.
We wondered whether we could find a better way to support principals locally in their schools.
Previously, business leaders attended workshops and training courses to develop their capacity to lead in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. It has become clear that a classroom is not the best environment to learn these skills. As former President Barack Obama said, “If leaders want to develop skills to deal with complexity and ambiguity, they need to leave their offices and learn how to get things done in resource-constrained settings.” We wondered whether we could create a program where leaders could develop their leadership skills and simultaneously help to create a more just and equitable world.
The program is called Partners for Possibility. Business leaders are invited to be co-learning and co-action partners to school principals of under-resourced schools in a carefully crafted and facilitated year-long program. It is designed for scale and impact: By equipping and supporting business leaders to be development partners to principals, we are able to reach principals across the country.
The program also is designed as a 70:20:10 capacity-building program: Seventy percent of the learning occurs when participants tackle real and significant challenges at these schools. Twenty percent of the learning happens through engagements with other people (such as peers in a community of practice, a coach, or other leaders who are also grappling with tough challenges). Ten percent of the learning is facilitated in formal classroom settings.
Business leaders report that they learn more from being in a reciprocal partnership with a school principal than attending a leadership development course at a prestigious business school. And they love the opportunity to make a meaningful difference by working with a principal and their team, who in turn could change the trajectory of thousands of lives.
I mentioned Ridwan Samodien earlier: He was the very first principal included in the pilot program. His story is captured in detail in Partners for Possibility: Stories of Impact (2010–2020), but here’s the short version: Twelve years ago, he was shy, uncertain, and at loggerheads with parents, teachers, and officials from the education department. He did not feel comfortable speaking to groups of people and spent most of his time hiding in his office. His school was classified as a challenge. Today, he is seen as a charismatic leader who deserves to be acknowledged with a lifetime achievement award by the provincial education department.
That’s a success by any standard.