Arabian Knights by Tony Nelson


The Iraqi Foundation for Technical Education (FTE) wanted a world-class development programme for its college deans. It drew from the UK’s acclaimed leadership development programme which was adapted to become the Dean’s Qualifying Programme (DQP).

FTE wanted to move from top down, centralized control to more flexible management in order to better meet the training needs of local employers and areas. This was against a background of national security problems, political change, economic challenges and a patriarchal culture.

A pilot programme was successfully run over 18 months to develop a cadre of Iraqi coaches and assessors able to support a wider roll-out. Cohorts two and three commenced in 2011 and 2012 for a further 36 senior leaders in Iraqi colleges and schools.


FTE is based in Baghdad and is the government agency responsible for technical colleges and Institutes throughout Iraq, excluding the Kurdistan region. It has over 72,000 students and 14,000 staff in 40 colleges and institutes. Since 2003 many of their buildings had to be reconstructed and all had to be re-equipped after looting. Some have been repeatedly targeted for attack by insurgents. Deans have faced attempts on their life.

The existing system of technical education is highly centralized, working under the auspices of the Ministry of Higher Education. Iraq was pre-eminent in the region for education and training but after 1980 this changed and it now suffers from educational deprivation, high drop-out rates from schools and up to 40% adult illiteracy in rural areas.

Then FTE President Dr Mahmood wanted new models of senior leadership to help them cope with economic reconstruction. He knew these models should be adapted to the Iraqi context and culture. He showed vision in seeking to redefine the work of leadership and wanting to place leadership power locally.

Dr Mahmood said ‘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.’

Colleges faced the challenge of equipping young people and adults with the vocational skills that are desperately needed to rebuild local economies. Society was divided and infrastructure decimated. Few leaders ever face such challenges in their lifetime.

Rawabit (arabicpartnership) was set up in 2004 by FTE, a group of UK FE colleges, the Association of Colleges and other UK agencies. It subsequently attracted funds from the UK government (now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and UNESCO. In 2009 I 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 hadchanged as a result of the programme he attended. Dr Mahmood brought to England a group of policymakers and I spent two days with them explaining the leadership programme and discussing how it could be contextualized for them.

Key Innovations and Timeline

I talked to anyone I could find with experience of leadership development in the Middle East. There is a paucity of published material on leadership in an Arab let alone an Iraqi context. I attended the Leadership Trust Foundation’s first Worldly Leadership Conference on non-western forms of leadership wisdom.

Dr Mahmood wanted a programme that was robust and externally accredited. I initially used assessors from the UK programme to validate the written assignment from each participant. I established a partnership with the Chartered Management Institute so that successful graduates of DQP would be assessed to become chartered managers. This was the first time this external accreditation had happened in Iraq.

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. It included an experiential learning workshop to stimulate peer feedback and self-awareness. Participants were also required to undertake a 360-degree feedback process. They had to prepare a personal leadership development plan and also manage a change project in the workplace.

Almost all of this approach was new to the Iraqi culture in terms of content. In order to be a source of useful learning for Deans every aspect of the programme needed to be contextualized for a Middle East, Arab group. This contextualization took place beforehand when possible but in the pilot often occurred as a ‘work in progress’ in the classroom. Deans had been raised on didactic teaching methods. An informal style of learner-centred delivery was ground breaking for them.

Each dean was required to:

·         be assessed for Maber/Fellow status by the Chartered Management Institute, to their usual UK standards;

·         submit a 5000-word assignment evidencing their applied leadership learning – this was assessed by former assessors of the English principal’s programme;

·         undergo a rigorous four-hour, face-to-face interview with a CMI assessor looking at managing people and leading change competences for chartered manager (CMgr) status, with triangulated evidence from peers.

Looking back and looking forward

Every opportunity was taken 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 which contains a leadership parable, making this the oldest recorded leadership wisdom. Erbil – where we were delivering – has the oldest continuouslyinhabited settlement in the world. We were working with people from the land of great biblical figures such as Noah, Abraham and Daniel.

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. 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. Verbal story telling was a natural teaching medium for our Iraqi friends. This was very useful whenever our modern technology decided not to work!

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 avoid trouble or personal disaster. Those with prior western contact demonstrated more subtle leadership styles. Our pilot group were mainly engineers and scientiststypically educated toPhD level. Their academic curiosity allowed them to make new connections out of seemingly disparate leadershipmodels.


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 organization;

·         apply selected theories, models and concepts from the programme in a 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 among peers to support continuous leadership improvement.

CMI Assessors found that contemporary leadership and management skills are still in their infancy in Iraq and in their CMgr assessment the deans all showed an advanced understanding of theory. During DQP they have been able to apply these leadership and management theories within their institutes and colleges. Assessors Gaynor Thomas and John Sephton contextualized and triangulated the evidence offered to reflect the unique setting and challenges of Iraq. Deans shared their stories of creating business impact including de-politicizing their learning institutions; stabilizing local communities through vocational education among former insurgents and prisoners; introducing new vocational and academic qualifications to Master’s/PhD level; and rebuilding colleges destroyed by terrorist activity.

Gaynor commented ‘The most impressive stories were those of rebuilding the human soul.’

Programme Outcomes

The nine deans all achieved the triple accreditation of DQP graduate, Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI) and Chartered Manager (CMgr).

The robust nature of assessment assured the quality of the applied learning. The programme also developed leadership standards with FTE. The nine deans were all trained to be able to coach future participants on DQP, thus building organizational capacity to support an Iraqi-led, wider roll-out of the programme. Four deans were selected to undertake the assessment of written assignments. The leadership competences used were to the highest UK standards.

Wider roll-out commenced in November 2011 for cohort two of 26 deans and vice deans (including the first female dean). This cohort embraced delegates from across the whole of Iraq including Kurdistan, now involving all three FTEs in the country. A third cohort commenced in July 2012 of 10 headteachers (three were female). These later cohorts have been funded by the EU through the British Council, contracting with the Association of Colleges.


The pilot programme was evaluated to draw out the learning and lessons.


·         These are the key to learning in an Iraqi group.

·         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 empathize with cultural difference and to research and reflect on cultural imperatives.

·         Building relationships takes time and is a layered process in Iraq – for example, we experienced a deepening bond each time we visited Iraq.

·         Dave Peel (tutor) reflected ‘we held in tension the need to adopt and role model a style of coaching which was supportive and challenging whilst not reinforcing patriarchal dependency. To do this needed us to reflect on 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.

Groups work differently

·         The role of a group leader in Iraqi culture is quite different from that in the western model. It is 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 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 conceptualization.

·         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 a 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 proportion 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 a 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.

Tony Nelson CMgr FCMI FRSA MBA/LS, Director of BrQthru, heads up the Dean’s Qualifying Programme. He is passionate about helping leaders create high performance organizations by maximizing the potential of their people.

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