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A Leadership Journey

I was asked to share my leadership journey with an Inter-Faith and Leadership course I'm involved in as part of my work with Uni of Surrey Chaplaincy. I wrote the script out so I thought it might stir a bit of thought and conversation if I shared it here. Let me know what you think.

I grew up in Papua New Guinea – the son of a missionary pilot who served remote communities by flying goods, people, medical evacuations, and aid during major disasters. My parents’ faith and dedication to serving people had a major impact on my life.

I came back to the UK for university, studied computer science engineering and alongside that I grew more committed to Christianity in understanding it, learning its history, and figuring out if there were good reasons to believe it to be true. It was at university that I learnt how to be British and regained a British accent from what was a mix of Australian and American. I still find my accent often changes when talking with international students!

After studying I then went into teaching and taught computing and maths in secondary schools for 8 years. Teaching teaches you a lot about keeping people’s attention when they don’t want to learn, and they don’t like your subject. It also teaches you a lot about managing conflict, pastoral care, and mediating.

Separate to teaching I was asked to be a part of the leadership of the church I attended and have been in that role for the last 6 years. Much of the skills required of teaching have been utilised as I both learn and teach, and support people in both the hardest and joyful moments of their lives. Throughout this, I’m doing my best to model what I think good leadership is, much of which comes out of my understanding of the Christian faith – I’ll talk about this in a moment.

My last year of teaching was tough. I had moved to a tougher school, hoping that I would be able to make some difference. I found that the students, while not as well behaved as my previous school, were still just kids and were manageable when they knew there were boundaries and that I cared about them. Unfortunately, when the students didn’t respond to my sanctions there was very little support beyond my department lead. Students knew they could skip detentions, insult teachers, and face very few consequences. Working in a tougher school is hard as a teacher but possible when there is good leadership and support. I had some excellent teachers and leaders around me but when it came to behavioural support, leadership was not consistent.

During this time, my 2-year-old daughter (now six) was in the process of being diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Rett Syndrome. I reached the limits of my capacity for stress as I was trying to navigate what this meant for my family alongside my role as a teacher. We had several hospital appointments and unfortunately the leadership were restrictive with allowing me to go to some appointments during the school day as they seemed more concerned with the cost of covering my lessons. While they said they cared about what was going on with my family, the cost was prioritised over care. Again, there were many in the school who supported me and the kids were amazingly supportive with raising funds for Reverse Rett and I am forever grateful for those memories. There were also times of questionable decisions by some in leadership positions that left a mark. Within that year, I handed in my resignation and left teaching.

This then led me to my current role with a Christian charity called Friends International. As a charity we support all international students, of all faiths, in settling into the university and into Guildford through a wide range of activities and events. As we are faith-based, we have been working closely with the chaplaincy. We were asked to become international chaplains in August 2020. We at Friends International run a leadership course for international students and because of this, I was asked to be a tutor here.

So that is how I got here today and while you may have picked up one or two thoughts on leadership from my journey, I’d like to take the next few minutes summarising what I have learnt from the various challenges I’ve faced and a reflection on the characteristics that make a good leader.

There is a passage in a letter by the apostle Paul to a church in Galatia which states that the evidence, or in the language of the text ‘the fruit’, of God’s spirit working in a person is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This and many similar passages have influenced my thinking on leadership the most. A good leader promotes a culture where these things are the 'fruit'. A leader does this through what has popularly been coined as ‘Servant Leadership’. You may have and can hear about this on several YouTube videos, but the idea is ancient and while my thoughts are based on a Christian perspective, I think the learning points are universal. I will summarise the idea in my current top five points of good leadership though much more could be added to this list:

1. Humility – be quick to listen and slow to speak. Be prepared to be wrong and quick to seek forgiveness. The best leaders are the ones who can hear everyone else’s voices and understand their perspectives before giving their own view or before making decisions. They are also people who own their mistakes and learn from them rather than deflecting, justifying, or defending themselves.

2. Integrity – Hold to your convictions. Humility doesn’t mean being walked over when something is wrong. If you know that something goes against your values, hold firm, challenge humbly, but do not lose your integrity.

It is important that we work out our beliefs, values, and convictions for ourselves. If we lose our integrity, we can end up being walked over or willing to do anything at the expense of our selves.

3. Relationships matter – often leaders can get caught up in the tasks that need to be done and lose sight of the people who are being led or being served as customers. One frustration I had with teaching was that students would often become data points – targets and reviews were all about moving a student closer to a grade that in many ways was arbitrarily set on arrival to secondary school. The target often become more important than the student.

A natural tendency is to want to get things done so quickly that we don’t realise when we’ve pushed people too hard. There is a huge influx of cases around bullying in the workplace from 74% of people saying they witnessed or experienced bullying in 2008 to 94% in a survey in 2019. I don’t know if you have found this to be true, but I seem to be more aware of cases of bullying both in the media and through friends, than I was a few years ago.

The anti-dote to bullying is to not focus on the good things that are done, or the results, but the relationships that help us get things done. Be kind. Be gentle. Neither make you any less confident and I think, are actually signs that you are confident. Forceful leadership, often comes from a place of insecurity (some thoughts here).

Nothing that is ‘done’ can be said to be ‘good’ if it has hurt people in the process.

When you focus on relationships, how people are getting on, what they want to achieve, and what they love to do, you’ll find that the tasks tend to get done better. People who are happy and connected in a community that cares for them are proven to be better workers.

4. Service – I believe that the best leaders are the ones who are willing to stand to the side and help others grow and develop their skills. They know that as leaders they are only temporary, and they take pride when they find people they are leading that are better than them. My role as a teacher wasn’t to show that I knew everything about computing, as if that was possible, but it was to help students see its usefulness and if possible, love the subject. There was nothing more fulfilling than finding a student who could code better than I could or challenge me with a difficult question that we needed to look up together. I think this is what it means to serve as a leader – you are there to help those around you be better.

5. Resilience – Leadership takes resilience because all the previous points are hard to implement well and you need to stick with it! It is hard to be truly humble when you think you’ve got the best ideas in the room. It is hard to hold to your integrity when the rest of your team disagree with you or are encouraging you to do something against your values. It is very easy to lose sight of the relationships in your team and instead focus on what needs to be done. It is far too easy as a leader to see something being done badly or differently to how you would do it and have the mentality of ‘I’ll just do it myself’.

It is also tough to challenge people when there is conflict or mediate when relationships are broken. A leader cannot hide from conflict or from challenging behaviour when it needs to be challenged. Allowing behaviour or conflict to remain without dealing with it is like ignoring an infected wound. The poison spreads and the damage gets worse and it takes more effort and often more severe actions to bring resolution.

It takes a lot of time and effort to be a good leader.

All that said, resilience can be developed. We have a session on resilience in the leadership course we (Friends International) run and in summary resilience can be developed through:

· good physical habits – focusing on sleep, exercise, and eating/drinking well

· good mental habits – gratitude, problem solving, and rest and reflection

· good social habits – reaching out (ask for help), forgiveness (see humility), and boundaries (learn to say no).

Tony Horsfall and Debbie Hawker in their book Resilience in Life and Faith have written about the need for connection to help build resilience:

“Human resilience depends on the ability to closely connect with at least a few other people.… Resilient people are more interdependent than independent. When life hits hard, they entrust themselves to others and accept help and support.”

In summary, these five points are all about becoming a leader who promotes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in those around them. If you promote these ideals in yourself and those around you, then you are well on your way to being a good leader.

Agree? Disagree? Do you have other points that you'd give a higher priority? Feel free to comment below.

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Thanks for taking the time and effort to write this, I found it helpful. One thing occurred to me whilst thinking about it. Continued self examination. What is our motivation, what is the source behind our motivation. A good tree produces good fruit, a bad tree produces bad fruit.

Philip Duncalfe
Philip Duncalfe
Feb 03, 2022
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Thanks for reading and commenting! Absolutely, self-examination/reflection is huge. I would be tempted to fit that within humility though it could well be a point on its own.

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