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Does the world really need more leaders?

Does the world really need more leaders? Frazer Cairns discusses what leadership might look like for UWC graduates if the concept was framed more broadly
Dr Frazer Cairns
Former Head of Dover Campus

Frazer Cairns started his career as a management consultant and journalist after graduating from the University of York in the UK. He retrained as a science teacher and subsequently taught in the UK, Indonesia and Switzerland. Having worked in international schools for most of his career Frazer is particularly interested in the way language is used in multilingual educational settings. He continues to study and contribute to research in this area, holding both Masters and Doctorate degrees in education.

An ex-runner, Frazer enjoys sport, particularly mountain and road bike racing, despite his knees not being what they once were. He is also a keen snowboarder and mountain walker though both are quite difficult in Singapore. Frazer is married to Rebecca and has two children, Matthew and Hannah, both of whom attended UWCSEA Dover.  

In July 2017, Frazer and his family moved back to Switzerland, and Frazer is now the Director at International School of Lausanne.

Does the world really need more leaders?

Yes, if we reframe the concept of leadership

A quick scan of school websites brings a realisation that, increasingly, the mission statements and learning programmes of many are almost identical. Everybody seems to be offering an education that is ‘holistic’, ‘mission-driven, ‘challenging’, ‘balanced’ and ‘global’ and which promotes the crucial ‘21st century skills’. Leadership is another such word and countless schools now seem to be suggesting that they are churning out future leaders by the dozen. I am left wondering how the UWC schools and colleges find their place among these schools. More significantly, I am left wondering what a world populated by so many leaders will look like, particularly because the image of leadership conveyed is often that of an individual in a position of responsibility making important decisions. Surely not everyone can be in charge.

Some months ago a parent sent me an article from the New York Times in which the author asked if there was any room for the ordinary any more. Was there a place for the child or teenager (or adult) who enjoys a basketball game but is far from Olympic material; who plays the violin but not to concert standard; who will be a good, decent citizen but won’t be a world leader? She went on to quote Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and author of the book The Gifts of Imperfection who wrote that, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.”

Madeline Levine, an American psychologist, wrote that she was once scheduled to give a talk about parenting the average child at a school in California. Although she usually commanded large audiences, not one person showed up. “Apparently no one in the county has an average child,” said Levine. All too often, the rhetoric of success is defined by accolades and the extraordinary. As a result, parents are increasingly anxious that there just isn’t going to be enough room for even the straight-A, piano-playing, hard working child. Going to a lesser university or ‘just being average’ will in some way doom children to a life that will fall far short of what we want for them.

The Times article struck home and I was reminded—somewhat uncomfortably—of an incident after securing what I thought was an outstanding graduation speaker at my former school. The person in question was a world famous climber, who had both saved lives and been saved by others, and who had made numerous first ascents of mountains across the globe. In a moment of hubris I made a comment to a colleague to the effect that the speaker moved the school’s graduation ceremony away from the normal, boring, middle-aged businessman or woman. Back came the reply, what a shame for Mr or Mrs Middle-Aged. They were probably just wasting their time being decent people, supportive partners and loving parents, instead of being heroes, out to change the world.

I don’t by any means wish to devalue the extraordinary. The world needs extraordinary individuals to act as agents for change—polar explorers like Tim Jarvis '84 to shake us from our apathy about global warming; astronauts like Aki Hoshide '87 to test the limits of human capacity; paralympians like Stephen Miller to challenge our views about disability; young people like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani campaigner, to force us to confront the realities of inequality and discrimination, despite the personal dangers she faces. The world also needs inspirational leaders who will bring about greater stability, peace and understanding.

But I do think that it is wrong to imagine that only extraordinary people can bring about change, and to confuse the words ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ with ‘insufficient’ or ‘impotent’. My mountain climber did not necessarily have more to say that was worth listening to than Mr or Mrs Middle-Aged, nor had they necessarily had a more beneficial effect on society.

When an organisation has a mission as compelling as that of the UWC movement, and when our commitment to that mission is so uncompromising, our graduates may feel that unless they are running an NGO, solving global warming or contributing to the search for peace in areas of conflict, they are somehow not fulfilling the expectations we have of them. But not all leaders lead from the front, and not all impact is felt immediately or in a dramatic way.

Grade 5 students at their culminating exhibition, which provides students an opportunity to bring together their learning  and showcase their ideasThe modern understanding of leadership is increasingly about the use of influence rather than positional power. Leaders are now said to lead by mobilizing people around a compelling vision of the future, and by inspiring them to realise that vision. They show people what is possible; they energize them and give them a sense of purpose. They also leave them with a deeply seated sense of accomplishment when the work is done. Though position is important—it gives access to information and resources that otherwise can makes a particular task far more difficult to achieve—it is not essential. The best leaders act as teachers, mentors, and role models regardless of what it says on their nameplate. They accomplish the most important parts of their work collaborating with others to gain support and cooperation, in order to drive strategy and accomplish goals.

Thought about this way we can all be leaders. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives can produce extraordinary results, if the weight and focus of that group is sufficient. I suspect that hundreds or thousands of people taking informed and compassionate decisions can have a more lasting affect on history than the words or actions of a single individual, even though these decisions, these “unhistoric acts” in George Elliot’s words, are made by a “number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

I suspect that hundreds or thousands of people taking informed and compassionate decisions can have a more lasting affect on history than the words or actions of a single individual...

Clearly I hope that the UWC schools and colleges will help to produce extraordinary people; people who will take an issue by the horns and shake up the world. However, I also hope that those same schools and colleges will help to produce a far greater number of nurses, carers in old people’s homes, loving parents and supportive friends who recognise that their collective actions can have as great and long-lasting an effect on the world. If the UWC movement is to “unite peoples nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”, it is likely that we will do it by ensuring that all our students recognise that everyday leaders living ordinary lives and making mindful choices, can have an extraordinary impact.

24 Jun 2014
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