In praise of magic and dreams in management education: Reflections on an (extra)ordinary lecture

Time is ticking. There is less than half an hour until my teaching to my students starts at Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia. I am trying to focus and prepare for my afternoon lecture of “Management Skills and Personal Development” course for about 200 students in my UEA London office.

I feel terrified. What am I going to do in front of 200 students? Our students come from different corners of the world to study at UEA London. They are bright and demanding. What if everything goes wrong today? What if I cannot talk? What if I bore my students?

Here I am — setting to new horizons and navigating uncharted territories at the heart of London. In fact, teaching has always been my true passion. I have made up my mind to become an instructor in management in 1999 during my undergraduate studies. My dream was to design one of the best creative business courses of the world and share my passions with hundreds of students. Here I am realizing my dream, so why do I feel so much anxiety and uncertainty?

My heart is pounding as I head to the lecture hall. I try to grab the heavy boxes of module booklets and handouts. I have great difficulty in carrying them as there are five of them.

At that moment I have realized how physically demanding and potentially stressful the whole teaching experience could be.

I seek help from my colleague and office roommate Joanne; who kindly and compassionately offers me help in carrying some of the boxes.

I enter the lecture hall. There are about 200 students in the huge lecture hall. A lot of chatter. My mouth is dry. I place the materials as I try to organize my mind on tens of things – including the flow of the lecture.

I try to log in to open the audiovisual system. Oh my God. I forgot my password. I cannot believe it. I have to go back my office. I still have four minutes. I run back, grab the password, and come back.

This time the screen works but there is another problem. The audio system in the lecture theater seems to be not working. I feel somewhat alone and vulnerable.

I play with a few buttons and then something magical happens. The audio system now works and students now can hear the voice. Yay!

It is at that exact moment that I realize the emotional roller-coaster I have been experiencing shifting from stressful anxiety to passionate excitement.

An instant flashback. I remember the time I was going to an academic job interview on Vancouver Island and I missed the Vancouver Island Ferry by one minute. As I was feeling desperate to get there, I found a way to use the plane. Here I was on the plane rising above the skyline of the beautiful Vancouver. The majestic and breathtaking view. Blue ocean, green forests, and the city with its skyscrapers lying beneath my feet. I felt an euphoria as it just felt like the times I was flying in my dreams.

In an instant second, I am back to the lecture hall. I feel as if I am experiencing the beauty of the film Inception; as I reflect on the role of dreams in my life. I realize at that moment how, during some of the happiest moments of my life, I was either dreaming or sharing my dreams with the people I love.

Now I feel ready to rise up to the challenge of lecturing to such a big class. Here I am, realizing my dream of offering a creative reflective module and sharing my passions with two hundred students. I enthusiastically welcome them and start talking about the module passionately. The feeling now I am experiencing must be flow.

I want to make a very inspirational start to the semester. The common thread of today’s lecture will be dreaming big dreams and pursuing them relentlessly.

Pursuing dreams

We will look at big dreamers on the big screen. Countdown – 3, 2, 1!

We start with the amazing young entrepreneurial success story of Gurbash Chahal on the Oprah Show who sold his company to Yahoo for 300m dollars and wrote a book called The Dream. Students did not expect this – they seem surprised and thrilled that we start the course with the Oprah Show.

We continue with the advice of Steve Jobs on doing what you love and staying hungry and staying foolish. After we discuss and reflect on the leadership lessons derived from his life and legacy, we shift to the world of haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy. We watch the trailer of the film ‘Cooking in Progress’ showcasing Ferran Adrià’s passion of cooking. Ferran Adrià, the Spanish celebrity chef-owner of elBulli, spends six months in his laboratory kitchen experimenting with new recipes, inventing new techniques, and creative methods to transform the field of international gastronomy. As I talk about how Adrià reinvents elBulli’s 35-course tapas menu designed to surprise and enchant his guests through unlikely combinations of textures and tastes, I can sense that there is great collective enthusiasm and positive energy in the air. As we continue talking about finding and expressing our own voices; we take a sneak peek at the magical Pixar film Ratatouille’s trailer where the talented rat Remy pursues dreams of becoming a great chef in Paris despite challenges.

As students have been reflecting on the lives, passions, and dreams of creative leaders and entrepreneurs including Steve Jobs, Ferran Adria, and Gurbash Chahal, you should have seen the hope, the curiosity, and the love of learning in their bright shining eyes!

In an effort to continue the momentum, we then watch the Top 10 TED Talks where visionaries like Sir Ken Robinson and Hans Rosling share their passions. After the videos, we discuss and share our reflections sampling the recurrent patterns or themes of successful and impactful creative leaders: They dream big dreams and passionately pursue them, they love what they are doing, they are not fearful of failures, they are persistent through challenges, they work really really hard, they invest more than 10.000 hours to be the best in their field, they find and express their own voices, they pursue a ‘blue ocean strategy’ to navigate uncharted territories, they combine surprising and contrasting elements creatively, and they use ‘enchantment’, thereby create a magical feeling or influence to sell their views.

Then I share my own story with my students: How I have been dreaming to design and offer some of the most creative leadership and management courses in the world. How I have been looking forward to teaching and inspiring hundreds of students. At this point I seem to get carried away by my passion. Students smile and give me a big applause. I blush.

There is a collective sense of efficacy and creativity in the air. I do not want to miss the potential of collective emotional contagion. Now is the time to tap into the power of imagination and visualization. We are now ready to dream big dreams about our lives.

I want my students to close their eyes and dream and visualize about their graduation. “You are with your friends, family, and beloved ones. Imagine throwing your caps in the air. Imagine how proud your parents are feeling about you.”, I tell them: “Whenever you feel difficulties during your studies, imagine about your graduation and this will help you address these difficulties”.

Then I want them to suppose that they have graduated now and they will now begin their lives and careers. I circulate big white papers for all students. “This is a fresh start. We start with a clean slate and an open fresh mind. Imagine that this blank page is your life and your career after your graduation. What would you like to place on this white page? Suppose that you have the chance to choose freely. You can choose your own goals, dreams, and passions. This is your life.” This is the “Tabula Rasa” exercise where students have the opportunity to draw pictures about their lives, imagine about their futures, visualize their dreams, and share them with the class.

They draw concept maps or pictures that symbolize the dreams they want to realize. I guide them through sharing my own sample personal maps and throwing them questions such as the following: “For example, if your legacy and work is represented by the metaphor of a tree, what are the branches? What does the trunk represent? What about roots? Leaves? Soil? Sun? Water?” They list their career passions and dreams – what really matters to them.

I want my students to use design thinking and entrepreneurial thinking when they conceptualize and visualize about their future careers.

While students are engaged in the reflective drawing exercise, I share three videos in order to inspire them and get them into a positive mood of reflection: The first is Four Minutes of Inspiration which was a video created by my prior students at McGill University as a course assignment. The second is a coastal sunrise video of Sydney which aims to help students feel more relaxed. The third and final video is the Billy Elliott musical of London’s West End (where Billy is talking about his passion in dancing and how it feels like electricity inside of him.

As I walk around the hall, I observe that students are really in the mood for creative reflection by now. While they are creating their reflection and drawing various forms of art work, I share my big surprise with students: I share three big boxes of chocolates to help them think outside the box. There is a Turkish saying “Let us eat sweets and talk sweetly” – what better way to start the semester! As I circulate the chocolate boxes, I suddenly realize the phrase “magical moments” on the boxes. Serendipity. These are indeed magical moments reflecting the current collective feeling of the class, I ponder. Everyone seems to be excited and smiling.

We then listen to the stories of volunteering students who share their passions with us. Some wish to work as managers in multinational companies. Some wish to start their own companies. Some want to work in NGOs to advance social innovation. Some want to pursue graduate studies. Some want to be self-employed as consultants to keep their own freedom and authority. I am truly inspired and literally learning from the dreams of my students – we are all learning from each other. We have organized ourselves as a learning organization from day one.

I encourage everyone to place these personal maps on their walls or study desks in their room. These drawings will act as compasses that will remind students of their larger goals, values, and passions in life.

I realize that our UEA students are a great cohort – very passionate, bright, and committed. I have seen their passion in their eyes. I feel very fortunate to have them in my class. I love my students!

I applause them and thank them for their contribution. As I end the class, I feel very happy. The boxes I carry back to my office are not heavy now. I feel as if I am at the top of the world. I am filled with tens of ideas. I start to create ideas on how to keep the momentum of the first class and build it forward.

On my way home, I see the Gherkin in all its glamour. I think about how Londoners have affectionately called the building as ‘the Gherkin’. I think about the boundless potential of learning and growth in the creative city of London. I feel I am at the right place. I feel humbled by my wonderful colleagues at Norwich Business School who are dedicated to the teaching profession. I feel proud to be part of a faculty team passionate about transforming management education at the heart of London. I wonder if I can ever match their professional commitment.

I remember today’s class again as an experiment of collective excitement, learning, and growth. I remember how stressed out I was feeling just two hours ago. Perhaps the magic is in this feeling of stress and being vulnerable. I reflect on the significance of feeling the excitement of the stage of teaching every time. Perhaps I should never lose this amateur spirit. It does not matter where or whom I teach. What matters is to reach the hearts, minds, and spirits of my students in a remarkable way; so that they will have a learning experience that will stay with them beyond the duration of the course.

Perhaps the balance sheet is not only about material assets and liabilities.
Perhaps it is about the balance of our hearts and the depth of our spirits.
Perhaps we can be better management instructors if we are engaged with passion, alive with meaning, and connected with compassion.
Perhaps we should teach and do research on new terminology such as corporate spiritual responsibility.
Perhaps we should transcend short term goals and dream bigger.
Perhaps we should try harder to unleash the creative spirits, imagination, and talents of our students.
Perhaps we should create more room for magic, enchantment, and dreams in management education.

Perhaps we should build castles in the sky.

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Dilek Y. says:

    Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Dear Dilek;
      Thank you very much for your kind words and support.
      Sincere greetings from London;
      Fahri

  2. ueanbs says:

    I keep coming back to this post and re-reading it again and again. I really hope that all lecturers and seminar leaders approach their own teaching in the same, positive way.

    1. Thank you so much:) I think we can be confident that our colleagues and lecturers at UEA are extremely passionate in their teaching – that is at least what I have observed at NBS. I feel very lucky to be part of such an outstanding team!

  3. Emine Sarigollu says:

    Fahri, I wish I were a student of yours! You have inspired many young students at McGill with your exceptional care, outstanding content, energetic delivery, and most positive attitude. Your students at NBS are fortunate.

    1. Dear Professor Sarigollu;
      Thank you so much for your kindest words. I am very humbled by your grace, humility, and trust – really – as I have been largely inspired by your approach as a mentor. You have been my role model and source of inspiration in teaching at McGill; especially with regards to being student-centered. I am hoping to be able work and teach together some day:) Sincere greetings and best regards from London;

  4. Santosh Sali says:

    Wow , what a lovely ,nice and Inspiring Post Respected Dr. Fahri. It pushed me to think on how can I organize my goals/dreams around being a good teacher. I have also changed to Academic , I feel teaching Org. Behavior is my passion. And reading this post had enhanced/reinforced it.
    Hope you will write more on being a teacher , & I will get a chance to read it often. Thanks.

    1. Dear Santosh;
      Thank you so much for your kind words and support:) I hope it is of help. I am hoping to write more and you have encouraged me to write more:) Many thanks:)
      Sincerely;
      Fahri

  5. Thanks so much, Fahri, for sharing this. It has given me a burst of energy for my own teaching practice.

    1. Thank you so much Rennie:) Very kind of you. I am truly energized by your perspectives myself. I have missed you a lot:) I am looking forward to talking to you soon after I finish my teaching this semester.

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