Lessons in Leadership: Aisha Khan

Aisha Khan, co-artistic director of Freedom Studios shares the lessons she’s learnt in leadership.

Being asked to write a blog about leadership made me chuckle a little on the inside. If you know me well enough you’d know exactly why I was chuckling. And I’ll be honest here about myself – I used to be a writer; I’m introspective, I spend time thinking, mulling things over before coming to a decision. Over the years I’ve learnt that I’m not overly fond of difficult conversations, of putting my points forward around a table or in a more one to one situation – all of which I do now (practical experiences count for a lot). My style of leadership is far from what I assume is a classic leadership style – hugely confident, assertive etc. I quietly go about my business – that’s what writers do.

Are the personality traits, that I have, ideal for a leader I hear you ask?

Well, they can be.

Let’s have a quick detour into the world of teaching. I taught English and Drama for a good while and in my early rookie days I spent a lot of time watching other teachers teach. Knowing your subject is easy, managing a class of children who’ve just been told they’re going to be looking at Romeo and Juliet for their SAT’s exams is a whole different thing. There were some teachers who were overly firm, some were shouty, some were downright scary and some were really nice – the kids always said they were ‘sound.’ High compliments from a teenager.

So, what were these ‘sound’ teachers doing? They communicated brilliantly with those children – often with humour. They knew what type of communication worked best with the different classes they taught (there isn’t ever one way of effectively communicating – you have to know your audience). They always used the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, there was always a real sense of camaraderie in the classroom and most importantly those teachers had a passion for their subjects and the ability to inspire – to get the best out of every young person. It was those teachers who were the ones that were respected, valued and trusted.

And for me, this, communicating, is perhaps one of the most important aspects that I’ve learned in this role and in my previous career as a teacher. There are of course other things which are worth talking about, but if I started writing about those here, I’m sure I’d end up having written a book.

You only have to Google the words communicating and leadership (I have) and a multitude of pages pop up – there to inform us about what good communication is and how we should do it. I’d say, read them, digest what is written there but it isn’t set in stone because what I feel is missing is looking at how we are as individuals – whether we are born extroverts or introverts – because this will effect not only the way we communicate but how we manage and head an organisation. I personally feel it’s always worth knowing yourself (I’ve had plenty of time to think about this when I’ve been writing) as it will influence the way in which you go about your daily business.

So, what have I learnt?

I’ve learnt how to communicate effectively – as me. Not anyone else, not those great leaders we read and hear about, not a colleague, a friend or even a family member. I have the ability to inspire and encourage and support individuals and hopefully the people I work with, I can passionately share my vision for the organisation (often with a thoughtful, quiet reserve, but it is there none the less) with our Chair and Trustees and stakeholders, and I can do all of that with a whole lot of other people as well.

I remember teaching a Year 11 class, and this was a few years down the line – one of the boys, 16 years old, was very entertaining and bright but he’d never shut up. I looked at him one day and said that I wish he’d stop being ‘so naughty.’ He wasn’t expecting it, it made him laugh, he said he wasn’t a five-year-old to which I replied ‘well you should stop behaving like one.’ He always knew when to be quiet after that.

He also said I was ‘sound.’

Aisha Khan, Co-Artistic Director, Freedom Studios.

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