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Leadership for a New Era

Why creativity and connectivity are essential in extraordinary times, by Head of School Peter Nilsson

On January 22, when Jordanian Minister of Health HE Dr. Saad Jaber was watching news reports about a virus emerging in China, it wasn’t the number of cases that he noticed, nor the number of deaths, it was the hazmat suits worn by the emergency responders and the announcement of a total lockdown of a city of over 20 million people. 

The response measures seemed disproportionate to the perceived threat. Something was coming, he thought. Something more than an annual flu, and Jordan needed to be ready. Two days later he convened the infectious disease committee. Soon after, the Ministry of Health launched an awareness campaign.

When COVID-19 finally came, Jordan responded assertively, taking measures that stifled the virus more successfully than most countries in the world. National health was greatly preserved, even if the national economy suffered.

That economy was the focus of Minister of Finance HE Dr. Mohammad Al-Ississ. When he considered the economic impact of a national lockdown, he understood the pain it would cause. But looking to the long term, he saw that if the virus was contained, the country could reopen sooner, it could avoid more significant long-term losses and enable a quicker recovery.

This has borne out. At the time of writing, we are opening deliberately and safely, while many other countries are opening hastily and with significant projected cost to life.

What does leadership look like in a time of crisis? Here at King’s, we were fortunate to hear from both the minister of health and the minister of finance as part of the COVID-19 Symposium this spring. Conversations with both yielded similar responses to questions of what makes effective leadership: have a plan and a back-up plan, build and support a strong team, listen widely and pay attention to details, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. These are leadership essentials.

Further, implicit in both of their stories is the need to keep a long-term perspective. Asking questions about the future — both hopeful and dire — is essential. What will the future hold? Can we see through the noise of today to anticipate the possibilities for tomorrow? What actions can we take to avert the worst and invite the best?

Plans, teams, attention, comfort navigating mistakes, and imaginative foresight. These lessons emerge as if from a master class in leadership. We need only take the time to study them.

This crisis and these examples of leadership remind us of our purpose here at King’s. In the words of His Majesty King Abdullah II, “King’s mission is not just to prepare young men and women to succeed in life, but to develop and empower young leaders who will drive change within and beyond their communities, and eventually across borders.” He continues: “The knowledge and values that King’s instills in its students help shape confident, well-rounded individuals and inspire them throughout their life paths as change-makers of a shared future of peace and opportunity.”

Leadership for a New Era

The middle and upper school years are a time for developing the habits of mind that lead to the kind of success and leadership that His Majesty envisioned and that the ministers embody. These habits of mind — built on a foundation of critical thinking and creativity, communication and collaboration — shape student futures. These habits of mind include independence and resilience, respect and responsibility, and an appreciation for the value of diversity. They lead students to take ownership of their learning, to care for the common good, and to welcome the change that is necessary to drive progress.

I came to King’s Academy because of its commitment to two ideals: excellence in the kind of holistic education that can be offered only at a boarding school, and service not only to the single community of a city, but to a country, to a region and to the world.

There is no school that reaches for these two goals the way King’s Academy does. The only boarding school of its kind in the Middle East, it is positioned uniquely. In its combination of local, regional and global relationships, King’s is unlike any day school in Jordan and unlike any other boarding school in the world. 

At King’s, students from Jordan enter an international, academically rigorous, residential environment and build relationships with peers from around the world, launching them into dialogue with difference from the moment they arrive on campus, and preparing them to enter a global marketplace of ideas and work. 

At King’s, students from around the world attend not just any one of hundreds of English-speaking boarding schools in the United States or the United Kingdom, they attend a school rooted in Jordanian and Middle Eastern history and culture. They become enriched by and attached to a country and region at the heart of the world and at the forefront of global thinking.

Did I expect in the year I would begin here that there would be a global pandemic that would force us to re-invent the very model of what we do? I don’t think any of us did. But the purpose of this school, in service not only to our students but also to the country and beyond, pushes us to rethink how our global position can translate what would appear to be a drawback into what would become an opportunity. Moments of crisis need people who can shape the narrative, not only respond to it.

Students and teachers at King’s took this opportunity. First, when COVID-19 struck Jordan, it meant getting the teaching right. Once it was clear that the lockdown in Jordan would extend through the spring, we transformed our teaching and learning, drawing from best practices already ingrained in our faculty. More teachers at King’s Academy teach for Global Online Academy (GOA), a leading online course provider, than almost any other school in the world. These teachers distilled their knowledge into a guide to transitioning from onsite to online learning and not only used it to shape our teaching as a school, but also to share these practices with the world, leading to the King’s Academy Guide for Teachers for a Smooth Transition from Onsite to Online Teaching being featured at Harvard University and other educational institutions.

Then, having established a strong foundation in online teaching and learning, teachers at King’s recognized that extraordinary times call for extraordinary attention. The COVID-19 Symposium was born out of the recognition that our community needed an opportunity to study, reflect and act on this moment in time. It was only a small leap to recognize that an online symposium for our students and teachers could equally serve as an online symposium for the broader community and the world as well. Service to students and to country. Fostering leadership in our students and modeling leadership as a school.

Through it all, our students led the way. When we could no longer have a prom, students organized a virtual prom. When it became clear that we could also no longer have an in-person graduation ceremony this spring, students began creating a multi-episode docu-series on the experience of this unusual senior year as a way of both looking back at what has passed and marking the significance of the moment going forward.

Further, in their downtime during our virtual spring, students have reached out to me with questions, proposals and ideas for a whole host of other initiatives and topics: a communications project to support families in need as a result of COVID-19, an app development project to make school information more easily accessible on mobile devices, a reflection essay on current events, and more.

These voluntary efforts, these steps above and beyond what is required, are signals that the mission of King’s Academy is thriving even in complicated times. I feel fortunate to arrive here, at a school so well established by my predecessors Eric Widmer and John Austin, and to inherit a student body, a faculty, a staff, a leadership team, a growing alumni base, and a parent community ready to continue and further establish the legacy of this extraordinary institution.

In the COVID-19 symposium, students engaged with government officials, artists, teachers, mathematicians, investors, business owners, refugee support workers and more. These are all leaders who charted their own courses and are making a difference in the lives of others. How will our students, galvanized by their time here, chart their courses and positively impact the people around them? These are the questions we ask every day.

I look forward to seeing you all in person in the coming weeks, months and years.