Moral Leadership

In Bolivia, a distinctive training program in moral leadership shines brightly

Operated by Nur University, the project serves many groups, from youth to teachers to municipal leaders, drawing support from major donors and government agencies and offering a vision of community service.

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia - On the southern edge of this fast-growing city on Bolivia's western lowlands is the barrio of La Fortaleza. Like most of the poor shantytowns that have sprung up around Latin American cities, it faces numerous problems, such as substandard housing, illiteracy, and high rates of crime.

That environment is partly what makes the activities of 18-year-old Silvia Tarachi and her friends so remarkable. In a place where there are few social institutions to provide support or guidance, Ms. Tarachi and her friends have on their own organized a small youth group to do service projects in their neighborhood.

"We meet every Saturday afternoon and we decide what we're going to do for an activity," said Ms. Tarachi, a student at the Luis Espinal School in La Fortaleza. "Sometimes, we go to help do cleaning at a children's home or to visit invalids. Sometimes we go collecting food for the poor in the neighborhood. We've done that five or six times."

Ms. Tarachi attributes her desire to serve the community to a moral leadership training program for youth started by Nur University, a Bahá'í-inspired private university in Santa Cruz. Established so far in 12 high schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods, the program offers workshops and activities designed to help young people see beyond themselves and to identify with a concept of leadership that gives community service the highest priority.

"Before the youth moral leadership program, it was never in my mind to form such a group in my neighborhood," said Ms. Tarachi. "The program has helped me to be more creative and to be more understanding. If I hadn't been in the program, I wouldn't have been as socially active to help other people who don't have resources."

More than 1,200 young people in Santa Cruz have participated in the program since it began in 1998, and they have undertaken dozens of small projects like those of Ms. Tarachi and her group, from planting trees at their schools to painting classrooms or even cleaning up a neighborhood plaza.

In March 2002, it was chosen by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) as one of the 12 most successful youth projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The youth program's record of success, however, is only one example of Nur University's overall effort to promote a new concept of moral leadership, which focuses on encouraging teamwork and service to the community at large instead of self-centered ambition. The effort is embodied not only in the undergraduate and graduate curricula at Nur itself but also in various outreach projects that over the last decade have involved the participation of thousands of rural school teachers, civil society activists, and municipal leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina.

The outreach effort has won considerable acclaim. Indeed, Nur's moral leadership training projects have gained backing from a wide range of international, national, and local agencies, ranging from the World Bank to the Bolivian Ministry of Education to the Office of the Mayor of Santa Cruz.

"There is a growing consciousness among many agencies, whether international or national or municipal, that there is a leadership crisis, and that traditional leadership models and patterns are unable to respond to the challenges faced in developing societies," said Eloy Anello, president of Nur's board of trustees and a primary author of its moral leadership program. "So they have found that the conceptual framework for moral leadership that Nur is offering is empowering and motivating people who want to change to fulfill their highest potential to serve the common good."

More specifically, Nur has provided moral leadership training in a series of external projects that includes the youth program in Santa Cruz as well as the following:

  • Training of rural school teachers - Since 1994, in close collaboration with government education ministries in Bolivia and Argentina, more than 1,100 rural school teachers have participated in Nur's 12-module program of specialized training to become facilitators of local community development in the communities where they teach. This program is on-going.
  • Educational Leadership Program in Ecuador - In 1998, Nur was contracted by the World Bank and the Ministry of Education in Ecuador to train 1,000 facilitators of Ecuadorian educational reform. Nur led the consortium of 11 universities in the 18-month project.
  • Training of Municipal Workers - Under a series of recent government reforms aimed at strengthening democracy in Bolivia, and with funding from agencies such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Bolivian government, Nur has launched a series of training programs for municipal officials, civil servants and members of civil society. These have provided elements of the moral leadership training program to mayors, senior municipal executives, technical staff and functionaries in 46 municipalities in the state of Santa Cruz, and, through a separate project, to some 200 indigenous leaders in a joint program with the Qullana Foundation in the state of La Paz. Other similar programs, involving hundreds more participants, are on-going.

"The program created a teamwork environment and changed people's attitudes regarding their individual and group responsibilities for the education of society," said Magaly Robalino, who coordinated the moral leadership training project in Ecuador for the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education. "Leadership is not seen as an isolated individual action, but as a social construct in continual development and change."

Elena Swarez, chief of the special programs section at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), said they singled the Santa Cruz youth project out for commendation because it "is dealing with issues that are perhaps not common practice, such as service learning and the importance not only of building technical skills but of character building and promoting citizenship.

"We also thought that the way the project was structured, with a network, bringing a lot of different sectors together, integrating parents and high school and college students and the community, is very important when we are talking about social and economic change," said Ms. Swarez. "And we certainly think it has potential for replicability and that it can be used as a model for other programs."

Highly participatory approach

Nur's moral leadership training programs have proven effective in a variety of settings because of their highly participatory approach, said Dr. Anello and others. The approach leads participants themselves to identity the flaws of traditional leadership models and then to build a new conceptual model for what makes a good leader.

"The idea is that you are not just teaching theory, nor simply how to do something, but rather we are working on the transformation of mental models, and, ultimately, the transformation of the individual," said Juanita Hernandez, coordinator of the Department of Education at Nur. "Because if you don't change the way you think, you won't change the way you act."

Accordingly, the training sessions for the program almost always begin with a discussion of traditional leadership styles or models. The program's authors have boiled these models down to four: authoritarian, paternalistic, "know-it-all," and manipulative. The "democratic" model of leadership is also considered and its promise of greater participation is carefully examined.

The flaws of these traditional models are then discussed. Participants come to see how each of the first four models tends to aggrandize the power of the leader while giving little consideration to the opinions or capacities of others in the community. And, while democracy in its ideal form should avoid such pitfalls, its practice too often simply leads to the election of leaders who then function in one of the first four modes.

As the course progresses, a new model is presented: that of moral leadership. Such leadership, it is explained, is marked by a number of characteristics, including a consistent orientation on service for the common good, active engagement in the process of individual and collective transformation, commitment to searching for the truth and applying truth in all aspects of one's life, the use of consultation in all aspects of decision-making, and recognition of the essential nobility of each human being.

All of these concepts, the program originators say, emerge from an understanding of human nature that recognizes both its material and spiritual reality.

"We really believe that morality and ethics cannot be divorced from spirituality," said John Kepner, director of social and economic development programs at Nur. "All of the problems that have been generated by traditional leadership styles - by authoritarian, paternal, manipulative and know-it-all styles - are ineffective because they are not based on noble human values but instead on the egocentric and self-serving pursuit of power.

"But the recognition of our inherent nobility and the spiritual side of our nature, by establishing a set of higher values, makes it possible for the individual to keep control of his or her ego so as to be free to serve others," said Kepner, who explained that the basic principles of the program are derived from the Bahá'í teachings but are consonant with virtually every religious belief.

Those who have worked with or gone through the program say it has indeed proved to be a transforming process, both professionally and, sometimes, personally.

Jorge Orihuela, a consultant with the national Rural Participation Investment Project II (PDCR II), said moral leadership training provided by Nur to municipal officials and local civil society leaders has contributed significantly to greater accountability in local government.

"Change in mentality"

"There has been a notable change in mentality regarding transparency in municipalities where Nur has worked," said Mr. Orihuela. He said Nur's training program, which has been financed by PDCR II, has helped both municipal officials and newly constituted "vigilance" or watchdog committees to better understand how government should work.

"It is Nur's methodology that makes it work well," said Mr. Orihuela. "The group dynamics used in the classroom are based on participation, to take advantage of a person's real-life experiences. So the learning cycle is based not just on theory but practice."

Juan Condori, a 41-year-old educator in Sucre, Bolivia, said the training he received in moral leadership from Nur was instrumental in helping him change from a strictly authoritarian and rather stifling leadership style to a much more open and creative one in his job as director of a small rural school in Alcala.

"I used to practice administration based on control, and relations between the teachers and myself were not the best," said Mr. Condori. "But after the Nur training, as I advanced through it, I starting applying what I'd learned and relations got much better."

"We started focusing on the idea that the school should project itself into the community and we came up with the idea of adding courses in vocational training," said Mr. Condori.

The school now offers courses to its regular students in carpentry, agriculture and animal husbandry, and it has applied for government assistance to make those courses available to adults in the community.

Marisol Consuelo Flores, who teaches religion and morals to primary students in a public school in Sucre, says that the program helped her to appreciate the diversity of her students. "I have Jehovah's Witnesses, some Mormons, Pentecostals, Evangelicals and two Bahá'ís in my classes, in addition to Catholics," said Ms. Flores, who is 32. "Before, I just tried to give the Catholic point of view of religion, but now I know that everyone has the right to believe something different and that I have to respect different beliefs."

Many say the training has also helped them in their personal lives. Lenny Lupe Fernandez, a 30-year-old teacher for the blind in Sucre, said the ideas presented in Nur's teacher training program have not only helped her to be a better teacher but have also contributed to the resolution of some challenges in her family life, problems surrounding the fact that her husband's two sisters live with them.

"Before, everyone went their own way in the family," she said. "If my in-laws cooked, they'd leave a big mess. But we've started having regular family meetings and we've drawn up a family contract. And now everyone cleans up after cooking and the relationships are much better."

Luis Venegas took Nur's "Rural Teacher as a Community Development Agent" training in 1993 when he was working as a primary school teacher in Bolivia's southern Chaco region. He became so convinced of the program's effectiveness that he now works full time as a trainer for Nur teacher training programs.

"Existential crisis"

Mr. Venegas, now 49, said his initial exposure to the program provoked a "deep existential crisis," inasmuch as it led him to call into question the work he was doing as an organizer for the Communist Party. "I was an atheist and a militant, and I identified with the Communist doctrine of social justice," said Mr. Venegas.

But the analysis of various leadership models presented in the course led him to conclude that although Communist leaders talked about "democracy," they were in fact "very centralized and authoritarian" and not truly concerned with the development of the people.

"I became disillusioned with the Communist leadership, perceiving that their actions were for personal interest and not the common good," said Mr. Venegas. "And I realized that the Party was looking for social or collective transformation without personal transformation, that there was no emphasis on moral values, and that this led to a big vacuum.

"In the Party, the question is how can the grassroots serve the Party, whereas in the moral leadership program, the question is how can leaders best serve the grassroots," said Mr. Venegas, who has now left the Party.

At the Luis Espinal School in La Fortaleza, the school's principal has been so pleased with the youth leadership training program that she has decided to incorporate it into the school's regular curriculum, so that all of the school's upper class students can benefit.

"The program has had a very positive effect," said Anna Maria Riva de Neira, Luis Espinal's director. "The students learn to work better in a group and are more integrated."

Ms. Riva de Neira and teachers at the school agree that the program has indeed motivated students to do more for their community, such as the efforts undertaken by Silvia Tarachi and her friends. In and around the school, students have undertaken such projects as cleaning out and renovating a classroom, planting trees, and starting a modest garden to beautify the school.

"It gives the students the capacity to think, to reason, and to share among themselves," said Magaly Espinosa Rosales, a philosophy teacher at Luis Espinal. "And the idea of doing something for others, especially doing work in the community - to me this has been important."

For their part, students say the program has given them a new direction and sense of potential. Franklin Barrientos, an 18-year-old senior at Luis Espinal, said that without the program, he might well have become involved with gangs - as have many of his friends.

"I see many gang members near my house at night, drunk and in pick-up trucks," said Mr. Barrientos. "But the program helps us to form a vision for the future. Without it, I would have no orientation. But now I've decided I want to have a career in agriculture or mechanics or perhaps military college."