Leadership with Appreciation of Diversity

Authored by: Inter-Community School, Zurich: Siarra Healey & Jule Simmangk

At the Inter-Community School, Zurich, appreciation of diversity is reflected in all areas of the community.  Students and teachers are inspired to promote, celebrate, and understand diversity. Exploring this Round Square attribute through the lens of leadership means learning about collaboration with others, exploration of self, and community engagement.  As a school, we believe that diversity is extremely important as it opens our minds to new and innovative solutions and supports the overall wellbeing of the team. In life, we will have to work with many different people and be confronted with new situations. This calls for open-mindedness and appreciation of diverse ideas and unique perspectives.

As an open-admission international school, ICS represents over 50 nationalities and celebrates a diverse range of ideas and perspectives. ICS students are encouraged to accept and understand others’ opinions when collaborating with members within and outside the community.  The ICS Research Ambassadors hosted a Baraza group meeting to discuss the importance of an appreciation of diversity. We all agreed that when working with others, being open and accepting of others is vital in growing as leaders and people in general. Collaboration with people of different beliefs, views, ethnicities, and morals will be unavoidable in life, especially as a leader. Therefore, we think that to manage these situations, understanding and celebrating differences are key skills of being a good leader. These views can be also seen in the wider ICS community (as evidenced by our research interviews).  All our interviewees agreed that working and interacting with other people inspire the sharing of perspectives, ideas, and behaviours. Many students mention the leader of the Grade 10 Round Square Team, Mrs. T. She ensures acceptance of everyone’s input; she makes sure all voices heard and promotes an equal distribution of youth leadership opportunities and responsibilities. Students appreciate how she values group leadership, rather than one single leader. Similar leadership attributes were observed in an 11th grade student leader, Student E. Student E is an active member in many student-led groups and is student-supervisor to the Grade 6-7 Round Square Team. In addition to being a good listener and encouraging students to get involved and share their diverse ideas, he is organized, helpful, and inspiring to many as an older successful leader figure.

These two leaders, one student and the other a teacher, are quite distinct in their interactions with others and their approach to leadership. The formal interactions between teachers and students are noticeably different to the more casual and open conversations between peers and student leaders. Additionally, teachers and students would logically have different views on leadership due to their diverse experiences and leadership opportunities. Teachers, as adults, are more respected, accepted and have more experience interacting with others. Teachers are perceived to be more traditional in their approach to leadership. They know what works when sharing diverse perspectives from life and leadership experiences. Students, on the other hand, are perceived as more open, innovative and are aware of youth views and issues. This results in a more modern approach to leadership. Students are open to trying new things that might not succeed at first, but in doing so, can unlock a new range of possibilities and new leadership approaches that could succeed in the long run.

Leadership does not have to be attached to a formal role. Students are ‘unofficial’ leaders when they demonstrate traits such as passion, encouragement, and inspiration. Evidence of appreciation of diversity through unofficial leadership was mentioned in one of our interviews. An interviewee referred to a student who is very active in sports’ clubs within ICS and who is described as helpful, open, non-judgmental, and full of spirit. The interviewee explained that these qualities enable Student S to lead by example, encourage her teammates and peers to share their respective ideas, views, and thoughts, and to listen and learn from one another. The interviewee stated that teammates value Student S’s appreciation of diversity and how this enhanced her leadership skills.

Leadership skills and an appreciation of diversity evolve as we draw from our own discoveries, experiences, and opportunities.  Experiences presented in general life, as well as in the context of Round Square Action Groups, enable students to learn about their own identities and promote self-improvement as leaders. Engaging in out of school group activities, such as sport clubs, are examples of how, when stepping up and taking on more responsibility in different contexts, we can enhance our appreciation of diversity. One learns through experience and interactions with teammates because perspectives are diverse.

Belonging to the Round Square network also provides students with opportunities to experience differences and self-improve.  Inter-school conferences (2018: Discovery through Adventure), workshops (Student-led Leadership Workshops) and events (International Festivals – stand organization) all provide the context for students to experience diverse opinions and cultures.

Attending conferences which bring together students from different schools enables young people and teachers to get an insight into different topics and ideas. We, the Student Research Ambassadors, find that we benefit from learning in a different context, whilst being surrounded by different people.  In these conferences, leaders from around the world shared how they started their projects and gave hands-on examples of how anyone can take their ideas and put them into reality.  By attending workshops and talks, the attendees were inspired to look for contrasting perspectives and evaluate how to overcome them.

In 2018, ICS held their own Round Square conference based on Discovery through Adventure. Students from Round Square schools all over Europe were invited to challenge themselves through new activities; teamwork and collaboration were vital. Through these teamwork activities students were able to test their limits and explore who they are as a team member and leader in different situations with people from around the world.

Workshops such as the ICS Student-led Leadership Workshops focused on teaching students how to be effective leaders by including and celebrating ideas and perspectives from all team members. Students learned about a range of topics related to international leadership, including being an introverted or an extroverted leader and how to adapt to and appreciate both styles. The workshops included practice sessions in which students practiced positive communication skills, such as using active listening skills whilst also getting one’s own opinions across. The older students running the workshops modelled excellent leadership skills and inclusive behaviour through informative presentations and engaging activities. The student leaders encouraged the workshop participants to practice, apply and pass on their new skills to their peers.

Leadership opportunities in the form of event volunteering is another important component at ICS. Students have the opportunity to get involved and take on responsibility, develop their organizational skills, all the while learning from being involved in student-led activities. The International Festival is one event that brings the entire school community together and promotes internationalism and cultural diversity. Through organizing these events, students are encouraged to collaborate and gain confidence in their leadership skills. Obstacles are overcome and mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. Through observation of others’ reactions to one’s different leadership styles, one discovers how to adapt best to different circumstances by appreciating diversity and improve as a leader.

Students take on leadership roles in a multitude of ways, including simple class work or group activities, when one member steps forward to take on some responsibility and bring the group together to share their ideas. All leaders have different leadership styles that will receive different responses from different collaborators. Some students may respond well to domineering, assertive and extroverted leaders, while some may respond better to considerate, open, and introverted leaders. Because it is hard to fully achieve both sides of the spectrum, good leaders will accept and learn from feedback provided by their peers to better suit and cooperate with their team. In other words, observation of others’ reactions or responses to one’s leadership style results in the discovery of adapting techniques, and self-improvement.

Conducting the Student Ambassador Research Project interviews was another experience from which we could learn and develop as leaders. We, as ambassadors, noticed different reactions to questions and topics regarding youth leadership. Some interviewees were shy, uncomfortable, or reluctant to share detailed answers or ideas, while others were open, passionate, and talkative about the same topics and their opinions. This provided us with the opportunity to adapt our style of questioning to suit the situation and ensure all interviewees felt comfortable and safe while discussing different topics and answering our questions, while also ensuring we gathered relevant information. This was evident in an interview in which the interviewee started off quite nervous and uncomfortable, however when we reassured her that this interview was anonymous – as well as using follow-up questions to fully answer every aspect of the interview questions – she began to warm up and talk more freely about her ideas and opinions. Through this large difference of communication styles, we learned about how different students express their thoughts and the thinking process behind their opinions, while gathering information relevant to the research project.

Overall, being involved in the Cross-Cultural Student Leadership Research Project has opened our eyes to Appreciation of Diversity in our school. One of the questions we asked during our interviews enhanced our understanding of how students appreciate diversity in our school. We asked: “Do you think that your identity impacts your access to leadership opportunities? How?” Many interviewees brought up experiences and beliefs, but we were surprised that no one talked about race and heritage and how that can impact one’s experiences, opportunities, and perspective. The fact that the idea of inequality rooting from race or heritage seemed so insignificant to the interviewees shows how truly international and accepting our school and students are, that they would not see this as an obstacle in leadership opportunities.

In conclusion, the strong connection between leaders and their team enables discovery and learning from other’s ideas and perspectives. This connection enhances open-mindedness, an expansion of knowledge and thereby supports improvement in leadership skills. Finally, through observation of others’ reactions to leadership styles and choices, leaders can reflect upon, improve, and develop alternative leadership strategies that meet the true needs of the team.