An article that appeared in the Sunday Times in December, 2015.
ARETÉ Academy Coaches Young People in Excellence.
It is a parent’s dream to see their beloved children grow up to be upstanding citizens, confident in themselves and able to influence those around them positively. I recently met with Shivanthi Sandrasagra, the founder and director of ARETÉ Academy of Leadership, who tells us more about how the Academy supports parents and educators to achieve this goal.
First of all, the name of the Academy is unusual. What does ARETÉ mean?
That’s a very important question. The answer gives the key to understanding the vision of the Academy. Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato used the word ARETÉ when they spoke of the pursuit of human excellence. (So, in a word, ARETÉ means excellence.) They sought excellence and this led them to acquire a great wisdom of life. Many of their “discoveries” are used by ARETÉ Academy. For example, the four internal leadership qualities that the Academy develops in students – sound judgement, responsibility, courage and self-mastery – find their origin in these philosophers who showed how the foundation for all aspects of character development are in these basic qualities. The best of these philosophers, Socrates especially, became wise in life through using common sense and logical reasoning and also dialoguing with others. ARETÉ Academy imitates this approach so that students of all religions and races can think and reflect, as well as articulate and share their ideas with others.
So, what is the link between excellence and leadership?
A person who seeks excellence will be excellent in all aspects of life, both on the inside and on the outside. A truly excellent person will automatically influence others positively in any situation. A person who influences positively is a leader.
Can you elaborate on your definition of leadership?
To lead is to influence positively in big and/or small ways. A leader is not just someone with an intimidating designation. If a person judges well what is best to do in every situation, not only for oneself but for the common good, and follows through with courage and self-mastery, he or she will surely influence those around him and will be considered to be a leader. While it is absolutely crucial to develop these internal qualities, it is also important to support them with a variety of other leadership skills, like for example, knowing how to communicate, work well with others, manage one’s emotions, act with poise, etc.
Can anyone become a leader?
Absolutely! The first question that is asked and challenged at the opening session is: “Are you born or are you made a leader?” By working through the doubts and looking at the lives of various past and present leaders, the students realize that leaders can indeed be trained. As Aristotle said: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.” While each person has natural strong points, he/she needs to work on the weaker ones in order to strive for balance. Excellence and leadership are found in balanced individuals. Leadership does not have to be an ostentatious quality.
Anyone who learns to consistently influence positively in their environment will become a leader.
How does ARETÉ Academy develop leaders? What do you offer?
ARETÉ Academy offers programs, coaching and internships.
There is the Core Program which develops internal leadership qualities. There are also complementary programs to develop leadership skills. Some of these programs are entitled: “Speaking your mind”, “Acting with style & poise”, “Working well with others”, “Managing emotions & feelings”…
Each student is helped personally to build on his/her strengths and work on his/her weaknesses through coaching. Students discover their temperament through a test they do. This helps them to know and work on themselves in a deeper way. Coaching is offered as a part of the Core Program and students can also continue with extra sessions.
We offer internships to give students a chance to demonstrate what they have learned, receive feedback from their coaches and get valuable experience for their academic and professional undertakings.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the Core Program?
Yes, let me give you more details. The Core Program offers 10 hours of group sessions spread out over 5 weeks, as well as 2 coaching sessions and 2 meetings with parents separately. For students who wish to and are old enough, a one-month volunteer internship at an organization is also offered.
For whom and when are sessions offered?
ARETÉ Academy welcomes all teenagers (13 to 20 years of age). Sessions are offered on weekdays and Saturdays. A group of ten students can agree on the days and times convenient to them for the group sessions. Coaching sessions are arranged separately based on a day and time convenient to each student.
What is unique about ARETÉ Academy? Do you think teens will enjoy going there?
Sessions are fun and interactive. We learn by watching movie clips, getting into case studies, reading parts of interesting literature, doing group exercises and games… In the process of becoming leaders, teens also pick up many useful “gold coins”. Let me give you an example… A discussion came about during one of the sessions. The instructor made the following statement at some point: “You should always do whatever makes you happy.” While some students agreed, there was a general air of uncertainty. When the instructor asked why they were uncomfortable with this statement, one student said: “Well, what if you do something bad?” The discussion continued and went on to clarify the difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is short-lived and temporary, while happiness is sustained for a lifetime. Finally, everyone understood that you shouldn’t always do what is pleasurable, but you should definitely always do whatever will make you happy.
What are the challenges facing Sri Lankan students in the future?
In a U.S. survey done in 2011 on what is appealing to employers in a tough job market, emotional intelligence (EI) beat IQ. So why did they feel EI is so important? According to respondents, those with high EI excelled at staying calm under pressure, resolving conflict effectively, behaving with empathy and leading by example… Sri Lankan students work hard and excel academically. This is their strength and it is important. In order to compete nationally and internationally, it would be advantageous for them to also excel in leadership qualities and skills.
Why did you start ARETÉ Academy?
I have enjoyed working with young people for over 20 years. I did this in my spare time since my career started in chemical engineering and then moved into finance and marketing after doing an M.B.A. I thought it was important to take the time to motivate and develop young people. Having grown up in Canada and returned to Sri Lanka a few years ago, I saw that the future of Sri Lanka is only as promising as the opportunities that we give our young people today. I am thankful for the people whom I met during the course of my life who showed me how to open my horizons and strive for excellence. I wanted to pass this on and see Sri Lanka excel. This is really why I started ARETÉ Academy. Also, my time in Europe doing a B.A. made me value the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers whose approach I thought would be very enriching in the Sri Lankan context. So, I would like to invite all Sri Lankan teenagers to Rise to Excellence!