The School of English for Engaged Social Service (SENS) is a place for learning English as a tool for leadership, self-cultivation, and social transformation. It is a three-month course that takes place annually from January to April at the Wongsanit Ashram near Bangkok.
How to Cultivate Leadership
It is very difficult to set a life direction or to lead others if you are doubtful or unsure of your own voice, of your own value, or of your own place in the world. Mindful and compassionate leadership is urgently needed in the world at this time, yet many of us are in fact doubtful.
In SENS we recognize that this doubt is widespread, for many reasons. It is a doubt that can be especially deep for women, for members of minority ethnic groups or oppressed nationalities, or for those who grew up in challenging circumstances. Yet we know on principle and from experience that every human being who receives the necessary support has the potential for profound leadership. What is that necessary support?
Five kinds of support we try to provide in the SENS program are:
- Appreciation and Listening. We do everything we can to appreciate the beauty and goodness of each participant in the course, as they are when we first meet them, blemishes and all. We do this by appreciating them verbally, by soliciting their stories and opinions, and by listening to them with genuine respect and thoughtful attention. We de-emphasize critique because everyone has been criticized and corrected so much that they become overly watchful of what they do, fearful that they won’t do something right… or worse, that they could never be right enough. We think our students, like all of us, need to be reminded of what is already right. Once they know we genuinely see their goodness and beauty, it is quite easy for them to accept suggestions, critiques, and corrections when needed.
- Confidence. Secondly, we demonstrate our confidence in the students by assuming and stating that they all have the potential to be leaders in some social sphere or another. Our view is that all human beings can develop the qualities of genuine leaders, such as integrity, kindness, flexibility, and a willingness to think about the good of everyone. We begin by acknowledging the ways in which students already manifest these qualities to varying degrees. And we consistently affirm to the students that they can do things they may be afraid to try.
- Inspiration Towards Leadership. Our aim throughout the course is to provide alternative and approachable models of leadership that are based on peer relations and mutual respect, rather than on hierarchical relationships. In the work team, we do our best to practice a kind of leadership that is strong in setting a tone and in doing what needs to be done for the success of our learning project, while also allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and accepting that we too will make mistakes. We take students on field trips to meet individuals who are outstanding leaders in one dimension or another, and students interact with them through interviews and discussions in a small group setting. In this way, we support the students’ moral imaginations, for as they see the good that others have done, often against terrible odds, they begin to have a larger picture of what they too could do. Through workshops, our students work closely for two or three-day periods with individuals who offer their skills in direct support of the students. Those experiences also clearly inspire the students to consider more deeply how they themselves could lead, train, or facilitate small groups. Finally, we ask the students to do research and give a presentation on a leader they would like to emulate.
- Demonstrating the Need for Authentic Leaders. Our inspiration towards a new kind of leadership is strengthened by our exploration with the students of the major crises facing humanity at present. These crises include climate change, severe social inequality, the difficulty of realizing genuine democracy, and the use of violence as a method of attaining social or political goals. Students are further motivated to step up and take leadership when they see how dire the situation is, and the extent to which many established leaders ignore or downplay the seriousness of these threats.
- Tracking the Growth of Each Participant. Finally, we make an effort to get to know each of the participants in the course well enough to know what kind of support each one specifically needs. We try to keep track of their personal growth throughout the course so that they can overcome even very personal and subtle but persistent obstacles. In doing so we build on ancient forms of mentorship that require the teacher to be aware of the particular needs and difficulties of each student, and to take the time to devise a plan and to respond appropriately. In this way, we challenge the impersonal and distant character of some forms of contemporary teaching. We also hope to model what we regard as a deeper form of solidarity in the teacher’s commitment to the student and to make this kind of leadership seem normal, desirable, and attainable to the students.
Learning how to integrate these five kinds of support most effectively for each new group of participants is a process that is at the heart of what we do. It requires that we continue to fine-tune when we succeed and seek to understand and devise alternative strategies when outcomes are not what we had hoped for.