25 years of Facilitating Leaders at Windsor
Written by Clare Dryhurst
By Clare Dryhurst, Coach and Former Civil Servant, Windsor Leadership Facilitator and Consultant.
Clare has spent over 40 years helping build leaders’ and individuals’ capacity, most recently in the British Civil Service. Over the COVID period Clare was Organisational Wellbeing Lead for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). She helped Defra to identify and deliver the organisational conditions needed for its staff to maintain their wellbeing and resilience while supporting the EU Exit and the UK’s COVID response. She continues to work as a coach and facilitator.
Last November I was able to reflect on 25 years of volunteering with Windsor Leadership. It’s my longest period of personal development and longer than any single element of my paid career.
On the cusp of a new century and millennium, in November 1998, I was swotting up on contemporary leadership themes. I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip to St George’s House with Windsor Leadership. New Prime Minister Tony Blair was riding high, and through concerted leadership on all sides, the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland had been signed in April of that year. A key contributor with Blair was the ‘Leader of the Free World’, Bill Clinton, who himself was on the verge of impeachment.
The first group I facilitated with Windsor Leadership was a group of nine leaders, including four women and five men. It spanned charities, the army, merchant banking, police, energy, civil service, social enterprise, health and racial equality. I was blown away by its relative diversity and had never even spoken to anyone from some of the sectors represented.
A journey of self-discovery
By helping create the space to tell real leadership stories, I heard for the first of many times, stories about finding courage in taking the least-worst decisions, coping with loneliness at the top, the servant leader, cost and sacrifice, reward and humility, and the importance of seeking diversity, especially of thought.
25 years on some things are still around. Hubris and human frailty, the court of public opinion, shocking acts shifting the course of events, the potential for peace and transformation to be brokered by third parties. However, looking back now at 1998 it seemed like the end of an era of relative certainty and security. Some of our discussions then feel now to be a little technocratic and optimistic.
Facing into Tomorrow’s World
Most of our crystal balls couldn’t show us what an impending digital world would look like. AI and robotics have changed how we work and think, and social media impacts on leaders and society and how we experience others. We’ve seen the rise of identity politics and populism, widespread wars, zero hours contracts, the financial crash, rolling back the state and regulation, a widening gap between rich and poor and of course the issue of accelerating climate change.
Despite this, from meeting our leaders regularly I know that we have honourable, talented, and committed people who are facing into these widespread challenges within society. The alchemy of a group of high performing leaders thrown together is compelling. What a privilege to help create a safe space for sharing and growth. And from that first group onwards I could confidently promise each new group that they could relate to each other and find personal transformation at Windsor and beyond.
Recurring constants in the syndicate rooms have highlighted personal stories exploring what ‘using your moral compass’ can actually feel like. Participants have unpacked their shortcomings and mistakes, seeking out unpalatable truths about the shadows they cast as well as the light.
Numerous trusted support networks have been created. There has been much focus on building personal and organisational resilience by empowering, nurturing and trusting people, whilst also building accountability and recognising that the buck stops with you. As one participant memorably said: ‘Trust in God - but tie up your camel’. Through all this, the need for regular self-reflection has shone through.
I’ve now facilitated on more than 30 sessions, formalised guidance on facilitation and chairing with the Windsor Leadership CAFÉ group (Chairs and Facilitators Executive) and attended my own Windsor Leadership programme as an HR practitioner, as well as made many good friends and allies who have coached and supported me.
What is encouraging is that despite so many changes to our world, the safe space has remained, and in our syndicates and plenaries we’ve stood alongside those leading or responding to those changes. Group members have quietly got on with diplomacy, peacekeeping, provisioning, educating, domestic security, mental, spiritual, and physical health support. And our groups have hugely benefitted from sharing insights on what a Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous world looks like.
In 1998 unscrupulous press intrusion was already rife and social media has amplified this. Over the past 25 years we’ve explored how accountable leaders can handle this aspect of scrutiny, as well as the loss of trust in institutions and leaders. We’ve also considered how to maintain personal wellbeing and manage the speed of change and decision making, amidst misinformation, second guessing, and sometimes in a crisis in the full glare of the media.
We’ve also started to talk about how to lead organisations which have as many as five generations with differing values and expectations. And work life balance and resilience, both personally and at an organisational level, feature even more strongly in discussions.
The Ultimate Test
The ultimate test for me of Windsor Leadership’s real impact is this. As Covid hit, I held regular ‘keeping in touch’ calls with a couple of recent groups and I ran my first Zoom Windsor Leadership session.
Our alumni overnight found themselves at the forefront of the hardest decisions, often literally life or death. They found support from each other as they gave courage to brave but exhausted and frightened staff, and educated our young people despite moving goalposts, kept hospitals and healthcare working, maintained regional and national services, or ensured financing for swathes of the population with no work or money. Others supported people and their families at the end of life and yet more provided police service to a population whose liberties had been curtailed.
All these heroes stepped up to the mark and drew on every ounce of their experience, trust and ingenuity, to continue providing exceptional leadership at a time of intense need. We are so proud to consider them part of the Windsor Leadership community.
On a personal note, I also found these calls and conversations a real lifeline, in my own role supporting organisational wellbeing in a large government department. When Windsor Leadership’s work in building resilience, connections, and support across sectors for the good of society was put to the toughest test so far, it proved itself a valuable aid. In the challenging times that lie ahead, I look forward to welcoming others as they go through the Windsor experience and prepare themselves for all that their careers will bring in the coming years.
Book your place to join Clare as she facilitates on our 24 April Hybrid Leadership: Avoiding Burnout online workshop.
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