10 Lessons From 10 Years: Play the Game that Exists

Welcome to Lesson 5 of African Leadership Academy CEO Chris Bradford’s reflections on lessons learnt over the past 10 years of establishing Africa’s leading educational institution.

10 Lessons From 10 Years

To play the game that we want, we must first play the game that exists. We must earn the right to reframe what education should be.’

LESSON NUMBER FIVE: You Have to Play the Game That Exists 

Nearly 15 years ago, I was drawn to the opportunity to create a new kind of educational institution: one that would dramatically accelerate the leadership journey of each and every student. I wanted to “change the game” in education and leadership development for young people in Africa – and in so doing, to shape the future of education for young people everywhere.

To play the game that we want, however, we must first play the game that exists. We must earn the right to reframe what education should be. For ALA, this is simple: we must demonstrate that we are able to advance students from all backgrounds to university, and that our students can excel at university and in their careers beyond. Only when we have consistently won at that game can we earn the credibility to reimagine the game entirely.

This can be a difficult pill for an innovative organization to swallow. We have just two years with our young leaders, and we know that the most valuable activities are those that foster intentional community, and develop capacity for critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creative confidence, and entrepreneurial leadership.

We seek to develop innovative programs in African Studies, and to invest in the important work of Seminal Readings. Yet, our teachers often feel we are shortchanging what really matters in order to prepare students for content-rich, high-stakes examinations.

The university admissions pathway is the game that exists, and we must win at it. This requires our students to pass certain types of exams, even when it is not clear that those exams have much long-term value.

‘Winning the game that exists does not mean we must compromise our values’

Winning the game that exists does not mean we must compromise our values, of course. We will not spend countless hours studying for the SAT at ALA, or skew the balance of time away from critically important programs. We will not push students toward specific, ‘high-profile’ universities if other universities might better fit their needs.

We will, however, make decisions that allow our students to satisfy key entrance requirements. These suboptimal short-term decisions can allow for maximum long-term organizational impact.

As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we see clear evidence of a track record of winning the university game. Our students gain access to and progress through university at impeccable rates, and they move from university into high-impact jobs faster than their peers.

Their success has paved the way for the re-imagination of university at ALU. In the years ahead, we look forward to making some bold decisions that reflect our beliefs about what school could or should be. We have lofty aspirations to create a new kind of high school credential, which we call the African Baccalaureate, and to change the game for university entrance. We must lead our peers and partners toward where the ball is going in education – winning the game that exists every step of the way.

What is the game that exists in your industry?

Are you clear on what your customers want, or how your success will be measured in the industry as it exists today?

Are you clear on how you seek to change the game, and why?

What “little bets” can allow you to demonstrate a commitment to learning and innovation without compromising your ability to win the game that exists?

Where are you making a suboptimal short-term decision to win a game that exists, in the hope of eventually maximizing your impact? How are you having conversations about this decision within your organization?

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