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Leading in Turkey’s Turbulent & Uncertain Times

By Andy Leathwood
Leading  in Turkey’s Turbulent & Uncertain Times

A lovely week on the Aegean coast of Turkey with my daughter, then three weeks at my home in Nelson, British Columbia with other family and friends seemed the perfect way to rejuvenate for the start of my third year as Headmaster of Tarsus American College in southern Turkey.
But a series of bomb attacks and an attempted coup in mid-July added to months of challenge and uncertainty in my adopted country. Not only was I bombarded with questions from my crop of new, fresh-faced foreign faculty about their many safety and security concerns, but I had to stand firm in the face of my own family, who were very concerned about me returning to Tarsus.
These events have certainly added another level of complexity to leadership here in Turkey—and in the many other countries having faced such attacks, as we are far from alone in this. I never thought I would need to have conversations about “hardening” our sites to protect them from suicide bombers! So how to lead in this environment?
Bring Down the Fear Factor
A major focus over the past year has been to manage the anxiety of our foreign faculty (we have a mix of 75 percent Turkish and 25 percent foreign faculty). News reports from home are generally sensationalized and make Turkey look like an active war zone, which it is not. We receive frequent emails from friends and family back home asking if we are safe. As a group, we have found that the best way reassure folks is to share the facts as often as we can and to have ongoing conversations to combat rumors and myths. We share security alerts from the embassies of Canada and the U.S., always including our own local information, which is regularly supplied by the consulate in Adana. These local reports consistently stress that this area is exceptionally safe. Security consultants have been invited to talk to the school community about general precautions when out and about (i.e., avoiding crowds and demonstrations).
In the wake of the coup attempt, our first task was to “re-convince” everyone that Tarsus is a safe and attractive place to work, as is Turkey more generally. Many hours were spent communicating via email and Skype to convince new hires to come to this amazing school and start working. At times this required some fancy juggling, as we sought to dispel concerns while remaining sensitive to them.
With lots of patient listening, and relying on the help of people having lived and worked here for a long time, we managed to convince all but two faculty to board their planes and join us in mid-August. In the weeks leading up to the start of school we made many excursions in the local area to show staff how safe and peaceful the area really is. This certainly seemed to help, as they observed life carrying on as usual all around us.
Build Teams and Relationships
No matter what the environment, there is nothing more important in leadership than nurturing relationships and building teams. We rolled out the red carpet for our new teachers and put on two solid weeks of orientation, both here and in Istanbul, to allow them to get to know each other. The culminating activity was a cruise on the Bosporous, with new foreign faculty from our 10 Foundation schools. It’s hard to imagine terrorist attacks when you are sipping a drink between Europe and Asia!
Back on campus we brought in our returning faculty and organized local activities so the two groups could get to know one another and share their practices and ideas. All faculty received a good deal of personal attention and consistent encouragement in order to build trust and to ensure they feel comfortable reaching out for assistance when needed. Just before the kids arrived, we enjoyed a two-day team-building retreat at a beautiful hotel on the Mediterranean Sea. It was important for our foreign teachers to understand that our Turkish colleagues face the same risks we do. These orientation activities pulled us together—both foreign and Turkish faculty—and set the stage for working with our students.
Focus on the Kids
We are all in this business because of our love of kids and learning. As we immersed ourselves in preparing for our largest prep class and overall enrollment in almost 20 years, departments set goals and produced course outlines. We developed pro-D plans and started reviewing a new assessment policy. This was the most important part of our work: keeping the focus on our students and away from the baffling world of the region’s politics. When the students finally arrived, all cares seemed to evaporate.
As Headmaster, I have found it is key to continue to model confidence and carry on with my usual routines: greeting faculty and students at the gate in the morning and evening with a smile and an upbeat attitude; always making myself available to everyone; and traveling freely around this fascinating country. But this also means being ready to share my own thoughts, feelings, and insecurities. Performing regular temperature checks and providing advice and support are important aspects of my job, as is regularly consulting with our security team.
We work with an incredible group of students and faculty here in the Tarsus Schools and it is truly a joy to be here. The Turkish people continue to be the most warm and hospitable imaginable, with such a rich history and culture. Where else can you find world-class ruins simply lying along the side of the road, or 3,000-year-old Hittite lion statues in the garden of the school? While the events of the past year have been unsettling to say the least, they have not changed my views of this country. Turkey is an ever-fascinating place to live and work where we feel safe. I feel truly privileged to be part of this community.

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10/01/2016 - cp
As an African American male, who worked in Turkey for three years, I felt much safer there than I do in the streets of my own country. I found the graciousness of the Turkish people so pervasive that I was respected and protected in both of the cities I worked in (Gaziantep and Kayseri). Although there are some social problems, I never felt the sting of racism which is so prevalent here in the States. I would return to Turkey to teach again without much concern about the political upheavals because I feel so connected to the people.
09/29/2016 - Dr. John
I really enjoyed this telling. You've painted quite a nice picture. I spent seven years in the Middle East and can relate to numerous aspects of your circumstance. All else aside, Turkey must be a lovely country.
09/29/2016 - Tristan
Great article. Thanks for sharing. We traveled to Istanbul this past summer and loved it.



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