The Foundation wanted to move from top down, centralised control to more flexible management focused on meeting the training needs of local employers and areas. This is being achieved against a background of national security problems, political change, economic challenges and a patriarchal culture. Few leaders face such complex challenges or ones which test their courage and resilience.
The leadership programme was intended to have impact on the vocational education system of Iraq as a generation of leaders redesigned the way leadership is practised, to the benefit of stakeholders, students and employees. Wider national economic impact would be achieved over time as Deans focused their Colleges and Institutes on innovative ways to respond to the emerging needs of employers.
Tony's children remark that ‘all we ever hear about Iraq on the news is bad stuff - why aren’t we hearing about the Dean’s programme?’ We hope this narrative opens a window on a very special group of Iraqi leaders taking responsibility for creating their new future.
This story is co-authored with Dave Peel
Foundation President Dr. Mahmood knew that his senior leaders needed new models of leadership to help them cope with the uncharted waters of post -liberation Iraq. He also knew that these models should be adapted to the Iraqi context and culture. He has shown vision in seeking to redefine the work of leadership and wanting to place leadership power locally to be able to respond to local needs. This has challenged the traditional approach to command and control and benevolent patriarchy which is common throughout the country.
Dr Mahmood recently said of the Deans Qualifying Programme (DQP) ” We strongly supported DQP from the start. This is an accredited programme which is helping Deans achieve our vision to strengthen the Iraqi economy through local communities. DQP is helping professionalise our senior management”.
‘As you are like, so will your rulers be’ (Arab Proverb)
Once the 2003 war ended, vocational education was presented with the opportunity of re-connecting with the outside world after 30 years of isolation from new ideas and embargos of economic development. But as the country descended into post-war chaos, colleges were stripped by looters. Colleges faced the challenge of equipping young people and adults with the vocational skills desperately needed to rebuild local economies. Society was divided and infrastructure decimated. Few leaders ever face such challenges in their lifetime and Rawabit (arabic partnership) has been a lifeline to Iraq’s Foundation for Technical Education.
Rawabit was set up in 2004 by the Iraqi FTE, a group of UK FE colleges, the Association of Colleges and other UK agencies. It subsequently attracted funds from the UK government (now Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and UNESCO. More than 600 senior managers and staff from across Iraq (including many women) have benefited from practical programmes to raise skills, develop strategy and make the curriculum more responsive to market needs. Many of these have visited the UK on study visits to twinned Colleges in England and N. Ireland or attended conferences in Istanbul or Jordan to share two-way learning and exchange ideas. The experience of N. Ireland resonated deeply with Iraqi colleagues who are working to overcome sectarian, political, tribal and religious divisions on their campuses. Iraqi colleges have supported former insurgents and prisoners to leave violence behind and learn trades to channel their energies productively.
In 2009 Tony was running the UK's leadership programme for Principals of Further Education Colleges. One of the UK participants was Iraqi-born Ali Hadawi CBE, who was vice-Chair of Rawabit . Ali shared with Dr Mahmood how his own leadership had changed as a result of the programme he attended. Dr Mahmood brought to England a group of policy makers and Tony spent two days with them explaining the leadership programme and discussing how it could be contextualised for them. He showed a video clip from the film 'Pay It Forward' (link is below) in which a teacher talks to his class about what do do when their world is a big disappointment. The clip resonated with the group who shared that what Iraq needed right now was 'hope'. This was their big leadership challenge. DQP is helping Deans embed hope within the vocational education system.
“The whole concept of leadership was new,” Ali Hadawi said. “People just passed on decisions from above. When they came and saw how colleges operate here it broadened their horizons about what they could do as leaders.They realised they didn’t have to spend their time authorising every packet of batteries — they could delegate some of that work and start thinking about strategy and the emotional and ambassadorial aspects of leadership.” (Sunday Times 3 July 2011)
Tony was humbled to listen to their personal stories of saying goodbye to their families each morning, never knowing if this was to be their last day on this earth. They were seeking to make a difference in the lives of students, de-politicise their campuses, resolve tribal disputes, manage student accommodation, achieve high educational outcomes...... and survive one day at a time. 'Insha'Allah' (God's will) was never far from their lips.
Tony was drawn to these dignified, gentle professionals who simply wanted to learn about leadership.
Tony talked to anyone he could find with experience of leadership development in the Middle East, or of living or working in Iraq. Despite avid research he discovered a paucity of published material on leadership in an Arab, let alone Iraqi context. He attended the Leadership Trust Foundation's first Worldly Leadership Conference on non-western forms of leadership wisdom.
The content of the 16 month programme included taught elements on high performance working; change leadership; engaging with external stakeholders; innovation culture; motivation; and coaching skills. We included an experiential learning workshop to stimulate peer feedback and self awareness. Participants were also required to undertake a 360 degree feedback process ( using the Leadership Audit from the Leadership Trust). They had to prepare a personal leadership development plan and also manage a change project in the workplace. They submitted a 5000 word assignment on their leadership learning.
Almost all of this approach was new to the Iraqi culture in terms of content. 360 peer feedback was unknown as was reflective leadership practice and coaching. In order to be a source of useful learning for Deans every aspect of the programme needed to be contextualised for a Middle East, Arab group. This contextualisation took place beforehand when possible but in the pilot often occured as a 'work in progress' in the classroom. As tutors we quickly realised we were on as steep a learning curve as our Iraqi colleagues. Dave led a workshop on the 'Change House' whose title greatly amused the delegates - who later told us that 'change my house' in Iraq means to change your wife!!
Iraq had been isolated from the outside world for decades and during the programme (which ran from late 2009 to early 2011) we discovered that Deans had been raised on didactic teaching methods. Our informal style of learner-centred delivery was ground breaking for them.
In our research for the programme Dave and I learned that Iraqi Arab culture is highly relational. We determined to concentrate on building strong, trusting relationships. We chose not to drink alcohol at shared mealtimes (despite the insistence of Deans that they were comfortable for us to do so). We listened to their stories and tried to understand their working lives. The programme started with a two week induction in England and we found that delivery was significantly slower-paced due to the need for translation and time for participants to discuss unfamiliar theories and concepts.
Delivery continued in Istanbul and then moved to residential modules held in Erbil in Northern Iraq. We saw a deepening of the relationships the further East we travelled. Once we entrusted our welfare and safekeeping to our Arab hosts in their own country we noticed a shift in the nature of those relationships. We were being described as ‘brother’ in e mails. Deans shared more personal information and views. The bonds were enriched through trust and mutual respect.
We took every opportunity to honour the heritage of Iraq by making links to its culture and history. The oldest known writing in the world is a Sumerian clay tablet found near Babylon – and it contains a leadership parable making this the oldest recorded leadership wisdom. Erbil Citadel is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. We were working with people from the land of the Tower of Babel, city of Nineveh, and great biblical figures such as Noah, Abraham, Daniel and Esther. It was from Iraq that three wise men travelled to find a baby Jesus. Tony "determined to honour that past, reconnecting Deans with their own leadership heritage, whilst introducing new thinking" (Developing Leaders Issue 5 2011).
We had intriguing discussions about the Qur'an and the role of faith in leadership. Spirituality is an inseparable part of Iraqi life and leadership. The five calls to prayer reminded us of this daily. We gave each Dean a copy of ‘The Leadership of Muhammad’ (now published in Arabic) by Prof. John Adair, Chair of Leadership Studies United Nations System Staff College , who has been following this programme with interest.
Iraq’s isolation under sanctions had decayed the research skills of participants and independent study was made harder due to the loss of so much of the country’s infrastructure. Information resources, libraries and internet access were patchy and unreliable. Power cuts were a daily occurrence.
We discovered that Iraqi groups work very differently to English ones. A group leader is appointed in Iraqi culture and members defer to him. There is more collaboration and spontaneity and the search for ’wisdom’ in shared tasks is a group endeavour rather than an individual learning outcome. Verbal story telling was a natural teaching medium for our Iraqi friends. This was very useful whenever our modern technology decided not to work!
Feedback as we knew it was totally unfamiliar. The dominant cultural norm is to preserve ‘face’ (dignity) and so the default in feedback was to the positive aspects. Negative feedback to one another, to a participant or even to a tutor was perceived as someone losing face. It took time to be able to give and receive personal feedback which could be seen as truly developmental. We worked on the principles of ‘small steps’ and ‘direction of travel’. The preferrred learning style in an Arab setting values small group discussion and paired work. The quality of feedback was inverse to group size – the smaller the better and pairs or one to one worked best.
The Deans had grown up in a leadership culture which was command and control, underpinned by patriarchy with tribal affiliations. Most had learned to keep their opinions to themselves - to keep their heads down to avoid trouble or personal disaster. Those with prior Western contact demonstrated more subtle leadership styles. Our pilot group were mainly engineers and scientists typically educated to PhD level. Their academic curiosity allowed them to make new connections out of seemingly disparate leadership models we were teaching them.
Moneer Tolephih, Dean of Baghdad Technical College, said “There is an expectation that the Dean should manage all the activities inside the college, or at least share every small decision” . This leaves him little time to think about strategy. Since completing DQP, however, he is working to change this culture, coaching his leadership team to help them take responsibility for more decisions. “My main challenge now is how to adapt the tools and techniques I learnt on the programme and to make sure that my leadership team is qualified to adopt them.” (Sunday Times 3 July 2011)
The programme was designed to support participants in achieving the following personal learning outcomes:
- Understand and apply strategic leadership to improve the effectiveness of your institution and its position in the market and community
- Understand the impact you make as a leader on your team and organisation
- Apply selected theories, models and concepts from the programme in a (change) project to strengthen your adaptive leadership of change
- Develop reflective leadership practice through feedback, coaching, change leadership and self-awareness
- Help create a community of leadership practice amongst peers to support continuous leadership improvement
We were concerned with evidencing applied leadership learning. Dave devised a three level model when it became evident that most Deans needed to move out of description of theory (Level 1) to evidencing the impact they made at work (level 2 and 3).
Level 1 - Exposure to and basic understanding of DQP materials/models/theory. This is a descriptive piece of writing/explanation
Level 2 - Thorough understanding and application of DQP materials/models/theory. This is a piece of writing/explanation which reflects on applied practice in context.
Level 3 - Adaptation and modification of understanding of DQP materials/models/theory. This discusses the underpinning rationale for the experimentation and is an advanced piece of writing/explanation. It is the deepest level of learning.
Examples of organisational Impact
CMI Assessors found that contemporary leadership and management skills are still in their infancy in Iraq and in their assessment ('Professional Discussion') the Deans all showed an advanced understanding of theory. Over the latter period of DQP they have been able to apply these leadership and management theories within their Institutes and Colleges to:
- Develop visions, leading to defined objectives supported by a framework of ethos and values;
- Establish High Performing Teams;
- Engage, motivate and lead their people with understanding and compassion;
- Identify, plan and manage change;
- Challenge their own social and institutional cultural norms and have started to implement radical changes in their own and other institutions as a result of this
Assessors Gaynor Thomas and John Sephton contextualised and triangulated the evidence offered to reflect the unique setting and challenges of Iraq. Gaynor said “We learned so much about what is happening in Iraq and the leadership and management Deans have had to exhibit in such very complex and difficult circumstances. What they have achieved is most impressive and it was very clear how they had successfully applied the models and concepts learned on the DQP in their Institutes, which have successfully blossomed under their leadership”.
Deans shared their stories of creating business impact including de-politicising their learning institutions; stabilising local communities through vocational education amongst former insurgents and prisoners; introducing new vocational and academic qualifications to Masters/PhD level; rebuilding Colleges destroyed in terrorist activity. They have experienced personal attacks yet demonstrated resilience, patience and faith.
Gaynor commented “The most impressive stories were those of rebuilding the human soul”.
Examples of personal impact
One Dean described the experience of leaving Iraq to attend the first DQP module in the UK as “walking through a very dark tunnel facing the headlights of oncoming cars, (which causes) a temporary blindness…. therefore we will need time to comprehend the lectures”. He felt that the extraordinary conditions of Iraq would hinder the application of some theories. DQP ‘”was an injection of energy to boost our hopes and dreams and gave us the opportunity to forget a lot of the worries that have accompanied our work throughout the dark period that we went through”.
The UK DQP assessor wrote of another Dean “I was very impressed by your openness and the courageous way you have taken your team with you on the journey - they too have travelled much distance. You have used DQP to run workshops, challenge and coach your staff to create a high performance team and achieve better results. You are inspiring your team to follow you and become different leaders. Your three drafts of the Leadership Development Plan show the progress you have made and your determination to succeed and produce a better institute. Equally important your openness and curiosity will ensure your journey has not ended and you will continue to learn, grow and develop as a wise and respected leader.”
A third Dean had to work on two stages; firstly to restore the Institute which had lacked the most basic supplies needed to sustain its role, and secondly to rehabilitate the ‘infected human soul’ which was destroyed by what had happened. The first task he says was rather easy, but the second task was much more difficult to achieve.
“What had happened in our country resulted in people lacking trust or faith in any leader; they were accustomed to the bureaucratic officials who are chasing after their own interests. Under the previous government public sector jobs were very badly paid; hence people had lost their interest and had no enthusiasm for working in the sector. Also they believed that whether they performed well or not, they would be paid the same (very modest wages) by the end of the month: therefore there was no incentive to work in the Institute.
“The majority of workers who had suffered the frustrations of the past have found it difficult to improve; clearly this caused problems for the Institute as they were unreliable. However after a period of time working with them, staff who had been in the “Denial Room” started to gradually transform when they realized the importance of the process to the Institute and that its success was dependent upon their involvement. I have been able to help them change by restoring their confidence in management, by encouraging them and rewarding their achievements by offering them incentives”.
He reflects on his learning
- Management of people in unstable circumstances such as Iraq is extremely difficult.
- The involvement of others in the decisions which affect them is important in gaining commitment
- The identification of stakeholders and their interests is important
- He has learned the importance of listening and how the application of (a) coaching model can be used very effectively to develop staff
The nine Deans all achieved the triple accreditation of DQP graduate, Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI) and Chartered Manager (CMgr). This was a first in Iraq. To get there each Dean:
- submitted a 5000 word assignment evidencing their applied leadership learning - this was assessed by former assessors of the English Principal's programme
- was also assessed for Fellowship status by the Chartered Management Institute, to their usual UK standards
- and finally underwent a rigorous 4 hour face to face interview with a CMI assessor looking at Managing People and Leading Change competences for Chartered Manager status, with triangulated evidence from peers
The robust nature of assessment, using external accreditation, assured the quality of the applied learning whilst on the programme. The programnme also developed leadership standards with the Foundation. The nine Deans were all trained to be able to coach future participants on DQP, thus building organisational capacity to support an Iraqi-led wider roll out of the programme. Four Deans were selected to undertake assessment of written assignments.The leadership competences used were to the highest UK standards.
Wider roll out commenced with the induction week in Iraq for cohort 2 of 26 Deans and Vice Deans (including the first female Dean) in November 2011. This cohort embraces delegates from across the whole of Iraq including Kurdistan, now involving all three Foundations of Technical Education in the country.
The programme has received attention from The Sunday Times and the international journal Developing Leaders (copies of these articles are attached below). DQP has recently featured in Iraqi TV, press and radio interviews networked acorss the Gulf.
- These are the key to learning in an Iraqi group. We built on the strong relationships established by Rawabit, feeling that we had been invited in to an ‘extended family’ with strong and trusting bonds
- Tutors need to establish credibility with an Iraqi group – but this is more than professional background, qualifications and relevant experience. It covers working with trust, dignity and respect at all times. We learnt to empathise with cultural difference and to research and reflect on cultural imperatives.
- Building relationships takes time and is a layered process – for example we experienced a deepening bond each time we visited Iraq. This was a function of entrusting our personal welfare to the Deans as well as them being able to showcase their country to us in the enchanting and charming way Arab hosts excel in. We think it empowered the Iraqi Deans to take responsibility for us.
- Dave reflected ‘we held in tension the need to adopt and role model a style of coaching which was supportive and challenging whist not reinforcing patriarchal dependency. To do this needed us to reflect and adapt our approach. The Deans were great teachers in this endeavour and allowed us to learn through real practice with them, always seeking ‘the wisdom’ in what we were doing and how this could positively affect the hearts and minds of those who they lead.’
- Planning is good but we learned to increase our personal flexibility – working ‘in the moment’ rather than to a fixed idea of what had to happen next. This is how Iraqi culture works.
- Delivery took twice the time it would with a group of English Principals because of the need to work with in-group translation and also to allow time for the group members to discuss new concepts and theories. This meant a need to adjust the pace, adapt content and avoid colloquialisms which only served to confuse.
- We learnt to assume nothing – we repeatedly discovered aspects of Western leadership development which are not present in Iraqi culture. 360 feedback is new territory; corroboration of evidence of impact is unknown; CVs are set out differently; management theories we would regard as foundational are unfamiliar. We will prepare a management and leadership introduction for future cohorts.
Groups work differently
- The role of a group leader in Iraqi culture is quite different to the Western model. The group leader has authority over a group’s behaviour and direction which is palpable. It is therefore essential to understand and acknowledge this, consulting the group leader for all important decisions and briefing them ahead of modules and key activities. Sometimes the dialogue in class is solely with the group leader – with others listening in or occasionally contributing.
- There is much more collaboration and less competition in an Iraqi Deans’ group compared to an English Principals' group
- Deans search for ‘the wisdom’ in tasks, lectures and even ice-breaker exercises. And this is seen as a function of the group rather than the individual take-away it would be in the UK
- Deans make lateral connections across leadership models and theories (whereas English Principals tend to drill down into one particular model to examine it in depth). Deans could then create a new model out of the inter-connectedness. This was outstanding conceptualisation.
- Feedback flows differently in an Iraqi group. It firstly depends on the level of trust present (as in the UK) but even in high trust groups it defaults to discussion of the positives and avoids anything which might be seen as negative. This protects the ‘face’ of the hearers or facilitators. Reframing developmental feedback to ‘it would be even better if…..’ could sometimes help. The quality of feedback was also in inverse proportions to group size – small groups worked better than large ones; pairs better still and one to one feedback from the tutor gave the greatest scope for discussion of ‘negatively perceived’ issues, subject always to obtaining the permission of the hearer and watching closely for non-verbal reactions which might indicate psychological distress from feedback.
- Dr Mahmood – whose vision for DQP provided the ‘igniting spark’ for the programme and whose ongoing sponsorship has affirmed its high priority within the Foundation. You are a ‘father ‘ to DQP.
- Dr Moneer – who as group leader for DQP provided guidance and wisdom to facilitators and delegates; who hosted us in Iraq and ensured our personal safety and welfare
- Jo Clough – who through endless coordination and influencing ensured that Rawabit always had a ‘home’ and sponsorship. You have been a bridge between many complex worlds and a source of encouragement in times of difficulty. Ali Hadawi – who shared his PQP experience with Iraqi colleagues through Rawabit which sowed the seeds for the Iraqi DQP. Martin Doel & John Mountford – who ‘adopted’ Rawabit and DQP into the AoC family and made this a seamless transition. Geoff Pine Rawabit Chair and the Rawabit Steering Group– for enabling DQP to launch and nurturing it as a priority Rawabit programme
- UK Principals Ian Peake, Paul Hafren, Maureen Mellor, Matt Atkinson and Sue Rimmer - who provided a week of leadership shadowing in their own Colleges.
- Chartered Manager assessors Gaynor Thomas and John Sephton – who coped with uncertainty, date/venue changes and assessing in unfamiliar circumstances. Your empathy and warmth was exceptional. DQP assessors Reg Chapman and Howard Petch – your insights, challenges and developmental feedback have been a gift to the programme and the Deans in particular. We have deeply valued your wisdom.
- John Ashford who worked hard on the experiential workshop in Istanbul
- Peter Derbyshire for his 'scene-setting' work during the FTE policy makers' exploratory visit in 2009
- The UK's government department DBIS and UNESCO - as main funders of the programme
And of course to the Deans themselves who were willing to move from simply ‘being taught’ to taking responsibility for their own leadership learning and development. You are shining examples for your colleagues