Seizing the stage: from high school debater to Oxford victor

4 minute read

I recently finished the first four-day module of the Diploma in Organisational Leadership. As part of this, I had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in a debate at an iconic Oxford venue, a moment that not only marked my return to debating after 20 years but also connected me with a deep-rooted history of intellectual exchange and discourse. In the span of two decades, the journey from a high school debating podium to the historic Convocation House at the University of Oxford encapsulates not just the passage of time but a testament to the enduring power of education, mentorship and personal growth. Let me explain.

The significance of convocation house

Convocation House, part of the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, is steeped in history. Originally built in the 1630s, this building served as a meeting chamber for the House of Commons during the English Civil War and again later in the 1660s and 1680s. Its walls have witnessed debates that shaped the course of history. To debate within such walls is to momentarily join a lineage of thinkers, leaders and scholars who have, over centuries, engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and truth through dialogue. 

A personal victory

Our cohort was split into six debating teams each arguing for or against a proposition. My team opposed the proposition stating: 'The house believes that organisational cultures should be judged only by the business results they produce.' After a coaching session on influence, power and communications tactics by Dr Chris Moos, and some much-needed encouragement from Programme Director Professor Sue Dopson, our team spent several hours researching and preparing to debate first thing the very next morning. Despite some tough competition, we won! Winning the debate was a moment of immense pride and joy. However, the victory held a significance that transcended personal achievement. More than twenty years ago, I debated on my small high school team in the United States. This win at Oxford was a validation of the lessons learned over those two decades on the art of persuasion, critical thinking and the importance of structured argumentation.

The role of mentorship

Reflecting on this experience, the role of mentorship in shaping our lives and careers cannot be overstated. My high school debate coach's influence extends beyond the argumentation strategies he taught; it's found in the confidence to speak up, the ability to articulate thoughts clearly and the courage to step into challenging arenas. Educators like my high school coach, Mr Bailey, and the Diploma in Organisational Leadership faculty, Prof Dopson and Dr Moos, do more than teach; they inspire and instil a belief in our potential to achieve greatness, often in ways we might not immediately recognise.

The power of stepping out 

Participating in this debate after two decades was a leap out of what I do in my day-to-day life. These days, as COO of a tech scale-up, I use a lot of soft power and coaching to get things done. This debate, which called on me to be a little bit more commanding and authoritative than usual, was a reminder of the growth that comes from embracing challenges and the unexpected opportunities that life presents. Leadership requires the use of skills that fit particular situations – sometimes gentle, sometimes strong and attentive. 

The enduring value of debate

Moreover, this debating experience reinforced the idea that professional and personal growth is not linear but a continuous journey of learning, unlearning, and relearning. The art of debate is more than the exchange of arguments; it's a vital skill that enriches our professional and personal lives. In a world where communication is key, the ability to clearly articulate ideas, engage in constructive dialogue, and persuade effectively is invaluable. The debate at Oxford was a vivid demonstration of these skills in action, highlighting their relevance across all aspects of life.

A call to embrace opportunities

This victory at Oxford is as much a personal win as it is a victory shared with all the people, including countless educators, who have helped me get where I am today. It serves as a call to all of us to embrace opportunities for growth, to seek out challenges that push us beyond our comfort zones, and to engage in lifelong learning with an open heart and mind.

The journey from a tiny high school debate classroom to Convocation House at the University of Oxford has been an unexpected testament to the power of words, the importance of mentorship and the enduring value of seizing every opportunity to grow. It's a reminder that the paths we embark upon, guided by the lessons of the past and the mentors who shape us, can lead to moments of triumph in the most unexpected of places.

It's a cliché to say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but sometimes clichés are true, and sometimes that step leads to historic halls, unexpected victories and the realisation of dreams nurtured over decades. I can't wait to see what else the Diploma in Organisational Leadership will bring me over the next year!

Oxford Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership