Welsh Summer School, AcademiWales 2013

Welsh summer school has been a very unique learning experience and I do believe that I have changed as a result of it. This doesn’t mean to say I look any different but I certainly do feel it. In what way you may ask? Well that’s the million-dollar question. In order to try to articulate the answer let me walk you through my week.

Day one began with Jo Carruthers who, amongst others things, is leading on the development of AcademiWales, introducing the notion of positive learning psychology to frame the week.  To give you a taster, lets go through the 5 principles associated with this approach:

1.     Adopt a growth mindset. This, in theory, includes believing that learning, talents and abilities can all be developed; that you need to embrace challenge and new ideas; see effort as the path to accomplishment; learn from criticism even when uncomfortable and find lessons and inspiration in the success stories of others.

2.     Get to know our negative capability i.e. understand how to be more tolerant and accepting, challenge the things you believe; be prepared to recognize and unlearn behaviours that are no longer helpful and use appreciative inquiry.

3.     Understand what drives you

4.     Learn mindfully

5.     Adapt and evolve

Having tired to assimilate that, Ben Page, Chief executive of Ipsos MORI challenged us to think about the pace of change and the rise of uncertainty in our present global market economy and associated workplaces. Apart from a fascinating talk about the individualisation and commercialisation of generation Y (post 1980), he spoke of the importance of authenticity and engagement at work; that 1% change can make a difference based on the principle of small moves and that saying thank you and random acts of kindness in the workplace are essential leadership tools. Whilst Ben spoke of providing all expense paid weekends for his staff and their partners, chocolate biscuits and pot plants floated through my mind, but hey this is the public sector and my pay could just about stretch to that….Jokes aside, his talk made sense to all of us and we were ready to reflect on that in the facilitated groups that followed.

Day two was chaired by Paul Matthews, the chief executive of Monmouthshire county council, a very impressive leader and speaker who talked of the importance of risk taking in the public services. Having had the opportunity to listen to Paul, I now understand why the occupational therapy services in Monmouthshire are so cutting edge: the culture he created has provided very fertile ground for the integrated teams they are developing there.  However, as much I was genuinely impressed, the highlight of the week for me was to follow.

Margaret Wheatley, a renowned writer, speaker and leadership consultant is someone I greatly admire. Her ideas on interconnectedness and chaos theory in leadership and organizations have fascinated me since her book ‘Leadership and the new science’ was first published. Her talk focused on moving from the traditional notions of leader as ‘hero’ to one of ‘host’ and was, as expected, challenging and fascinating, asking us to relinquish the sense of power and control normally associated with leaders to one of genuinely ‘being’ in the workplace, providing space for relational interactions and trust, keeping “morbidly obese bureaucracy” at bay and finding a sense of meaning at work. She spoke eloquently of the speeded up society and how leaders are challenged to be “warriors of the human spirit”. She noted that to achieve this, at least initially, leaders might have to implement change “under the radar” and “proceed until apprehended”. This phrase became a mantra for many over the rest of the week.  It is not often that leaders are challenged to evolve into something more than society and the traditional workplace expects. Neither is it often that leaders are asked to revolutionize their accustomed ways of being by genuinely relating to and supporting others in the workplace, but there was a indisputable spirit of transformation in thinking at summer school for the rest of the week, with a strong sense that this would continue and be enacted in the workplace. Thanks to Phil, a member of my group, I was also able to get into Margaret’s workshop; an unintended consequence was that Margaret took the time to speak with me over lunch about my forthcoming book on life balance. She offered advice, some key reading and contextualized some of my thoughts. This was a pivotal point in the week and I am very grateful to Margaret for her generous time and interest. For further information on Margaret’s work go to http://www.margaretwheatley.com/.

Day three was filled with dynamism of Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner who were, in their very different ways, irrepressible. Fons’ humour and ease in the delivery of complexity was infectious and Charles’ depth of thought phenomenal. Their ideas around polarities and bipolar thinking so common in everyday life were fascinating. By offering the inspired visual metaphor of reconciling differences between peaches and coconuts so their model of reconciliation became clearer. This model is one I shall continue to reflect on in terms of my own research around the daily dance of work and the rest of life as well as utilize and apply in everyday dilemmas that arise in the workplace. Charles’ thoughts on capitalism were of particular interest in terms of the greater dilemmas we face in the postmodern age and the paper he recommend for reading in terms of stakeholder as an alternative to shareholder capitalism in the Harvard review is indeed a challenge to contemporary thinking. (I think this may be an article by Yochai Benkler called The Unselfish Gene, HBR July/Aug 2011 but don’t quote me!). Having my own thoughts about neoliberalism, the so called ‘capitalism with the gloves off’ (McChesney 1999 p8) and the notion of soft capitalism where soft  ‘denotes the expansion and intensification of demands on the self to become ever more involved in work with its whole subjectivity’ (Costea et al 2008 p 627), I wonder how stakeholder capitalism will improve the intensifying pressures on the working individual. Thanks to these two great speakers I shall ponder on these issues over the coming months and in the second pivotal point of the week, both took the time to talk with me over coffee about the dilemma of work-life balance and have sent me some key papers to support my work.

Yet another impressive leader, Dr Andrew Goodhall, Chief executive of Aneurin Bevan Health Board who talked about the importance of listening, optimism and courtesy as leaders, chaired day four. Andrew introduced us to Professor Ian Robertson, who talked about the winner effect as a technique in successful leadership. He described of some the physiological changes that occur in the brain which shape how we behave. This led us to talk about the killer instinct, the feel good factor, tomato cans and cichlid fish…all of which were used to illustrate the principles of his ideas. The link to his TEDX presentation that shares much of these thoughts can be found here: http://goo.gl/vkxLE

We also had a presentation from Marie Taylor who talked about the nature of personal resilience and the importance of slowing life down. Quoting Nelson Mandela, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”, Marie was able to evidence how that illusive concept of resilience can be an essential tool of personal growth and sustainability, even in times of adversity. Having also been in her adaptive leadership and resilient mindset workshop I do feel I’ve come away from summer school with a greater sense of wellbeing and personal strength and some tools to help keep it that way.  

The final day was initially fun and seemingly lighthearted with Prof Richard Wiseman leading us through a very entertaining introduction to his ideas around luck. However, the insights he imparted through his talk about perception and how the mind can convince us of things that are not really there were fascinating. Most of you will have seen the psychology experiment about the volley ball players which in theory identifies how we can focus on something so much that we see only what we want to see and miss really obvious things going on around us. If you haven’t seen the video it can be found at http://goo.gl/M9LZC . If you have seen it try this one and see what happens: http://goo.gl/SkDY

This of course is all great fun but the lessons to be learned are quite profound both personally and for leaders in the workplace. If your attention is focused you can miss the bigger picture, however obvious that may be and this means opportunities and key events can be missed. Prof Wiseman also identified how associations can change how you view certain situations and consequently, if you are not self-aware in terms of how you are responding or thinking your assumptions about those situations (which may be wrong) can remain intact and skew your perceptions. Take this clip for example, once we have seen it once it is hard to disassociate from the response either emotionally or cognitively. Don’t take my word for it try it and see: http://goo.gl/rDZO

Ultimately Prof Wiseman evidenced that your individual view of the world shapes your perceptions and experiences of it and biggest lesson of all – if you perceive yourself as lucky you will feel lucky and vice versa. This doesn’t mean to say you won’t have bad things happening but that how you view that will be different thus see the positives rather than the negatives.

Last speaker of the day was Robert Holden, the director of success intelligence and the happiness project. The key elements I took from his talk were first that as a leader you are like the weather, meaning that the mood you bring into the workplace will affect all around you. That is a powerful metaphor to consider because ultimately the weather influences everyone else’s day. He suggested that one of our greatest challenges as leaders (and people) was to seek out greater wisdom not effort; that busyness is really avoidance of investment in the real or authentic self; that in the manic society we need to stay focused on what was real; that relationships are key to success; that asking for help was not a weakness but a strength and finally that spirituality or love at work and in all walks of life was the greatest gift. As Erich Fromm once said “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence”. Robert’s presentation was very uplifting.

Finally along with the two workshops already mentioned with Marie Taylor and Margaret Wheatley I also attended Elaine’s emotional intelligence, Zoe’s strategies for mental toughness and Mark’s guidance on finding happiness within. I also found the time to have a very useful coaching session with Mary, who opened my eyes to some rather simple solutions I would not have found by myself. To summarize, this meant the week was jam packed with opportunities to learn, think and develop. The support and friendships gained with colleagues in my group and the fantastic facilitation we received from Ian and Helen made the week one of the most intensive and meaningful positive learning experiences I have ever encountered. Each member of group 14 brought something unique to the whole reflective process and I for one will remember them.

2 thoughts on “Welsh Summer School, AcademiWales 2013”

  1. Yes quite right! definitely highlights. I did think of calling this blog “Walking on sunshine” but thought the uninitiated reader might not understand the reference to the choir’s excellent rendition. My one regret – not joining the choir….but then again with my voice it might have best for everyone!!

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