Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce News

Tony Swainston - From Harrogate Grammar School to Afghanistan

26 Aug 2021 by Tony Swainston

The sign read ‘KFC’, but it didn’t seem to have quite the same appearance as the logo that we are all familiar with. However, in terms of the words that the three letters normally represented I learned that it was only the first letter that stood for something different when I was informed that the ‘K’ didn’t stand for Kentucky and that in this case KFC stood for ‘Kabul Fried Chicken’. Although I enjoyed some wonderful food over in Kabul, I didn’t try this particular delicacy!

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Rabia Balkhi Girl’s High School

On Saturday, 23 October 2010 I had landed at the airport in Kabul and was driven in an armoured vehicle to the heavily guarded British Council compound where I would be staying for the next 10 days. On this journey I passed the KFC sign. My task in Kabul was to deliver a leadership training programme for around 40 men and women, gathered from all over Afghanistan and brought to Kabul by the British Council. Many of these people had, I was to learn, personal stories that touched me deeply and demonstrated immense courage and astonishing leadership in the face of life-and-death challenges.

I reflected that it seemed an awfully long way from my time spent at Harrogate Grammar School. And, of course, it was in more than one way. A quick look on the Internet will inform you that there are around 5000 miles between Harrogate and Kabul, but of course this tells you nothing about the abyssal cultural divide. I was a teacher at Harrogate Grammar School for 11 years, leaving in 1994, and I enjoyed and learned so much from my experience there. Teaching is a challenging business and involves a commitment to constant learning. Then 16 years later in my new career as a leadership trainer I was in the capital of a foreign land that I had heard a lot about from the news but understood so little about in terms of the people. I was once again on a learning journey with a steep gradient the like of which I had never experienced before.

Ten months later, on Friday, 19 August 2011, I was on holiday with my family in the Camargue in France. It was a sunny day, and I was just about to struggle, in an embarrassingly clumsy fashion, to climb onto a horse, something I had never done before, when my mobile signalled that I had received a text message. The message came through from a colleague with the British Council who wanted to let me know that the compound that had been my temporary home during my stay in Kabul had been attacked by the Taliban. I was comforted to discover that none of the British Council employees at the compound, that I had come to know well and admire even more, had been injured. However, it was truly horrible to hear that 12 people had been tragically killed, including Afghan policemen, compound security guards and a New Zealand special forces soldier.

Just five months later, on Monday, 13 February 2012, I arrived back in Kabul. My task as before was to provide leadership training. After the attack by the Taliban the British Council compound was no longer being used so I stayed this time in the Green Zone, a place of supposedly higher security.

Since my days in Afghanistan I have had the privilege of delivering leadership, management, coaching and mentoring training in over 25 different countries. Of the many things that this has taught me the following stand out:

  1. Great leaders can be found everywhere. (They exist in Harrogate as well as Kabul.)
  2. Effective leadership can be learned.
  3. Emotional intelligence makes the biggest difference in terms of the success of a leader, and this too can be learned.

In my view, leadership, like life in general, is a process of discovery. In the words of T.S. Eliot (from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets);

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

If you would like to talk to me about how I may be able to support you and your organisation then please contact me on (07919) 045429 or tony@tonyswainston.com