The Educational Leadership course in Freetown is in full swing. 15 participants are working hard on their leadership skills. I am being assisted by co-trainer Theresa A. Saccoh. We have explained that leadership for us is not about ‘rules and laws’, but about how you use your personality to lead. That’s a relatively new approach in this part of the world. When a university over here provides an Educational Management course, it concentrates on the history of education, the administrative side of management, and, of course, rules and regulations. The UNICEF programs also primarily focus on the more formal and technical side of leadership. As important as these areas are, something is missing.

The importance of these missing pieces and the difference they make becomes evident when we talk about feedback. We start off by asking whether anyone can tell us how he or she has done in observing a lesson during the past week.

Joyce volunteers an example. Last week she observed a lesson about spelling and found the teacher explaining a rule incorrectly. This sounds like an interesting case study! What did she do next? Everyone is all ears since Joyce now has to tell us how she responded. From her slightly nervous chuckling I can tell that she is pretty anxious.

“After a while I left the classroom and called her in to see me later that day.” Hmm, not a bad start, especially since we had discussed things like ‘never give negative feedback in public’ and the importance of being timely.

“I then told her what she did wrong and told her how to do it differently.” And then? “Then she left the room.” End of feedback.

I ask Joyce when exactly she knew what the teacher was going to do differently next time. Again some nervous shuffling: Joyce’s mind is at work. After some thinking she says:

“Later that week I observed another one of her lessons and she did very well then.”

Next question: “Could you have known earlier what she was going to do differently?”

Silence… and then something that might pass for an excuse:

“Yes, but I hadn’t yet been on this course then.”

A creative answer, spoken with a grin and received with hilarity. I repeat the question to the group. Issah, sitting next to her, raises his hand and ventures:

“You could have asked the teacher herself.”

We all agree. Explaining has its place, but sometimes it is better to ask a question, even when you already know the answer. If a teacher thinks of a solution on their own, they’ll feel more responsible and as leader and you still get to express your approval. This approval is vital in a culture in which authority carries much more weight than our egalitarian society.

We probe a little more deeply with Joyce. Why was she so nervous? She tells us she found the questions difficult and noticed she had to think of a solution herself. The other teachers can empathise. Expressing your emotions is never a problem here.

I try to steer the discussion into broader reflection by talking about what I’ve heard from them in the past few days. When a teacher has a problem, the headmaster generally thinks he has to be the one to solve it. This leads to a pattern where teachers toss their problems up to the headmaster and wait with arms crossed until a solution drops down from on high. We call that ‘upward delegation’. Sounds of agreement fill the room. Everyone here is familiar with the concept of delegation, even if delegating to their boss is a new concept. Even still, they recognise the pattern and realise it has to be broken.

The term ‘upward delegation’ crops up regularly in our conversations later in the week. Will things change next week? I don’t know. Hofstede teaches us that this culture is very vertically-oriented. But here also teachers understand that the world is changing. Social media has reached Sierra Leone and through ICT they will be able to develop and share knowledge much more democratically. In their own careers, they will soon find that the view of the chief as the fount of all knowledge is a thing of the past. It makes a lot of sense to think about how to provide leadership in times like this.

And Joyce? Of course I praised her publicly for her courage, praise that was echoed with universal audible agreement… She beamed!