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7 Questions on Leadership with Prof. Dr. Paul Roeders

Name: Prof. Dr. Paul Roeders

Title: Leader of National Education System Reform Projects

Organisation: Self employed, working for bi- and multi-lateral development aid organisations (EU, UNO, WB)

I finished my university studies (PhD) in Psychology and Education at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands and started a career as academic researcher and teacher trainer.

Via advisory work I did as leader of the research group on Educational Management at the University of Groningen, a new direction in my career opened: team-leader in nation-wide education reform projects, financed by international development organisations, in several countries all over the world. Objectives of these projects: increasing enrolment in education by making it more attractive; improving the quality of teaching-learning processes; and establishing a system of life-long-learning of educational staff, from teachers to ministerial officials. Major activities of the project teams include: development of a strategic implementation plan, policy and management advice to the Ministries of Education and their decentralised units; participatory implementation of the plan (incl. in-service training of teachers, teacher trainers, and ministerial officials). I was awarded the title of Honorary Professor in Education for my achievements in the Reform of the Education System in Peru.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Paul's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Working as a leader in projects that should bring about change in existing systems has quite some challenges. One of them is to create a smooth working team of international experts, as each project has other team members. The team of experts can be ever so good, it is never enough to bring about change. Where change is the objective, there is always resistance against it, usually on all levels of the organisation. So, apart from a well-functioning project team, a “critical mass” of people within the organisational structure is needed to support and later help to implement the project’s activities. This may be the biggest challenge, to find at the inception phase of a project the people within each level of the system, who are convinced of the benefits of the project’s objectives and can be of help in the implementation phase. Another big challenge can occur when it turns out that different units in the system have different, even opposing interests in the change process, which can jeopardize the acceptance and thereby the implementation of the activities. Diplomatic skills are indispensable when this happens, in order to bring the various groups on the same line.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

As leader of a Research Group on Education Management, I got involved in evaluating the implementation processes of big innovation projects in the education system in the Netherlands and their effects on the achievements of teachers and students. Apparently, I delivered high quality work and earned a good reputation in this area, which showed itself by invitations as key-note speaker at national and international conferences, and for a guest professorship. But it was through head-hunting that I was first asked to lead a national education reform project in a far-away country. The successes of that project (and subsequent ones) led to a continuation of my career as a leader in this kind of projects, as well as to being invited as consultant in the area of educational innovations.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

After waking up and a first hello to my spouse and the world around us, I take care of my personal needs, like a shower and shaving and we prepare and eat a good breakfast as basis for the energy needed for the day, usually watching the news while having breakfast. Then I’m off to the office, partly by public transport, and big parts walking to keep my physical condition.

I don't have a real routine work schedule because of innumerable responsibilities, which include meetings with ministers and other officials, team meetings, interviews with public media, participating in training events, public speaking events and coordinating reports, sauced by phone calls and a lot of email correspondence. When facing stressful moments, I take some mindful meditation time for myself. After returning home late afternoon my spouse and I spend time having supper, catching up on what happened that day and watching an interesting movie at home or going out to a concert, theatre or to the cinema with friends.

Training events have a different, more structured routine. They are organised as 3–4-day residential workshops in various cities in the country, implying overnight stays in a hotel. After breakfast there is a short team meeting to prepare for the day, which has four 90-minute training sessions, interrupted by a lunch and two coffee breaks. The day ends in the evening after dinner with a team meeting to evaluate the present day and prepare for the next one. No real family time apart from internet.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

In the course of my leadership career, I discovered that in a culture of change the best style of leadership is visionary, democratic and focussed on coaching. Only in an atmosphere of trust and fostering creativity, the team members will feel inspired to unfold their full potential in their work. This includes allowing them to make mistakes and learning from them. Allowing myself as well to make mistakes and being vulnerable enables the most meaningful connections with others. Being authentic and leading by example creates the best atmosphere in a team.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I have to mention two books that really inspired me in my leadership activities. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the 14th Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It showed me how to choose for a life of joy, which includes meaning, growth, and acceptance; even of emotions we call negative. Kindness, gratitude, looking for ‘silver linings’, and creating real human connection are now more consciously present in my activities as a leader, a kind of spiritual dimension. The second book is The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. It made me aware of the power of being vulnerable (often considered a weakness). Without vulnerability you can’t create deep and meaningful connections with other people. And the nice thing is that these issues are all backed by recent findings in Neuroscience.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Dare to be vulnerable. It shows you are human and creates the transparency and the trust you need from your team. Having the opportunity to openly share ideas and discuss any challenge in the team helps to find solutions and to move ahead. If each member of your team feels that s/he can make a difference and that s/he is valuable and accountable, they will do the best and also keep developing their professional skills.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

It was in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is the only country where I had to deal with 13 Ministers of Education, with different agendas, of course. In consultation with the Ministers, our team developed a strategy for the modernisation of the whole education system, which was accepted by all of them. Upon presentation of the strategy in the media, we received so much acclaim that we were offered assistance in implementing the strategy from several international sources. Listening critically to all suggestions made during the preparation of the strategy, together with a transparent and human leadership, clearly paid off.

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