HR & Management
How debating club at school helped shape my leadership skills
7 min read
12 July 2018
Life is a 24 hour, 365 days a year conversation. We’re constantly speaking to colleagues, customers or strangers. Even when sleeping we’re still talking. And when we’re not, we’re often dying to speak but lacking the courage to do so.
I’m pretty sure we all recall those days at school when a teacher would ask to put our hands up if we knew the answer to their question. Why is it that so many of us didn’t do so?
Most of us probably knew what the answer was, but were simply too scared to respond. It’s no surprise then that when we enter the world of work, one of the leadership skills that we most often lack is public speaking.
Luckily, during my childhood I had debating to hold onto. Debating is perhaps one of the most valuable leadership skills I have ever been taught. Like languages, the sooner you learn it, the better you understand the principles and naturally apply them in practice.
I believe bridging the gap between schools and the workplace is key to the future of our success in society, so, using the debating example, I’d like to showcase the importance of teaching skills of this sort in schools.
1. Speak clearly and command respect
In debating it’s key to communicate your thoughts in a clear and concise manner to keep your audience engaged. As German philosopher and poet, Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Those who cannot understand how to put their thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of debate”.
The same applies to good leadership. As a general rule, people don’t listen attentively. It’s why the first 30-60 seconds are the most critical to the success of any public speaking encounter. Audiences make decisions about you and what you’re saying within that time frame. It’s important we realise this and choose our words wisely.
Debating helped me see public speaking in this way – as a form of conversation that attempts to communicate a message in an orderly and structured manner. The objective is to establish a bond with the listeners to more easily persuade them. This means the end goal is not just getting the message across but doing so in a way that everyone can understand.
2. Listen carefully and inspire action
Anyone involved in traditional debating will have noticed that you aren’t likely to see anyone enter the floor ready to tear into members of the opposing side. Instead, people come prepared to listen carefully and tailor their argument towards those that most struggle to understand their point of view.
This to me feels refreshing, particularly because when I think of debating today, what often comes to mind is politics. Political debates seem to have turned into popularity contests. They tell us very little about who would make a good president.
In fact, we could go as far as saying that we’re turning into a world where opposing sides in regular daily conflicts create their own little bubbles, consume different news and talk to people who share only their views.
The beauty of debating is precisely the opposite. It enables us to connect with others on an individual level and motivate them to follow. This is a good reminder to exceptional leadership too. We shouldn’t be looking to understand and listen to our best team performers only.
In fact, if anything we should be looking to focus on communicating more with those that aren’t doing so great, in order to figure out where the problem lies and how we can better support them. What’s more, this concept is not only key to debating or leadership or team success, it’s key to the progress of society as a whole. Someone needs to remind us more often of this.
3. Don’t just listen, pick up on people’s needs
Being a good debater is not only about listening to what people have to say, but about understanding the idea behind their opinion. This helps comprehend not only the issue at hand but the people involved. In other words, as I like to see it, it helps understand logic.
This is what effective communication really boils down to – learning how to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Understanding this and applying it in practice within leadership really reinforces group members’ belief in a leader. A leader who has shown they understand and tries to meet the needs of its members will often translate into a team that tries to meet their leader’s needs better too.
Whilst it’s true that becoming a great leader stems hugely from experience, maturity, and many many mistakes, there are many great attributes around leadership that can be taught from a younger age, through other means.
As we look to encourage independent thinking, scrutiny and learning in schools in preparation for the next wave of technology, we should also be looking to encourage programmes such as debating more actively.
This will not only help build confidence around public speaking and the value of respecting and learning from other people’s views, it will also directly assist in training and equipping the leaders of tomorrow with the right skills. And who knows, it might even help improve the face of today’s politics…
Chieu Cao co-founder and CMO of Perkbox