Emerging Leaders – Dr Patricia O’Lynn: Personal Values in Leadership

Resource type: Podcast

In this episode, we speak to Dr Patricia O’Lynn, skilled researcher, political activist, education consultant and committee chair. Patricia was also the first female member of the Northern Irish Assembly for the constituency of North Antrim and is an alum of the Cumberland Lodge Fellowship scheme.

Patricia explores school exclusions, class-based social division, and how leaders should be able to define their personal values to guide their decisions.

You can find out more about our work to help young people develop ethical leadership skills here.

You can subscribe to Cumberland Lodge’s podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifySoundCloud, and other major podcast platforms.

Episode transcript

00:00 – 00:34

Munny Purba (MP)

How can young people be empowered to become involved with campaigns for change. In this episode, Dr Patricia O’Lynn explores how developing a strong sense of personal values can help guide young people into becoming ethical leaders of the future. Patricia is a skilled researcher, political activist, education consultant and committee chair, and was the first female elected to represent the constituency of North Antrim in the Northern Irish Assembly.

00:34 – 00:58

MP

Thank you so much for your time, Patricia. Really excited to chat to you. Let’s just kick off with asking about how you became motivated to start working around school exclusions.

Dr Patricia O’Lynn (PO)

So first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to have me on the podcast, I’m delighted to be here. In terms of your coming towards the school exclusion work as a bit of a long story because it begins unknowingly in my childhood.

00:58 – 01:18

PO

As you know from Northern Ireland, I was raised Catholic, probably from a predominately nationalist family, but I grew up in a loyalist town and I went to a Catholic primary school which wasn’t without its challenges. There was issues on the way into school in terms of identity and sectarianism and navigating that. And then within the classroom, actually I think we were quite fortunate.

01:18 – 01:37

PO

We had one child who was a looked after child and quite a range of ability within the classroom. From an early age, I could see that the most important thing for me was to get the teacher to like me so that I would be picked for all the activities and would have lots of friends. And as it came to later years, I was provided the opportunity to reflect on my experience at university.

01:37 – 01:59

PO

So I did a degree in law and a master’s in criminology, and it gave me a real breadth of understanding in terms of academia. Then after I graduated, I started working in a school exclusion centre, managing a transition service for young people, moving from compulsory education to the next stage of their career. It was a very serendipitous career where because I didn’t plan to do that work, I kind of fell into it.

01:59 – 02:18

PO

But I was forced to reflect on all issues of exclusion in my life. So, you know, in terms of me being a child, growing up in a post-conflict society and then within the classroom, the way those children who were different from the norm were treated and essentially excluded from within the classroom and then outside of it sparked a real interest for me.

02:18 – 02:45

PO

And I was really casually doing research one day in the centre, trying to make the service better for young people and found there is very little, if any, research on Northern Ireland and absolutely not from the perspective of excluded youth. So I then framed the PhD around amplifying the voices of excluded young people and trying to better understand what they interpreted social exclusion to mean, because this is the only thing on paper, they weren’t formally excluded.

02:45 – 03:02

PO

They hadn’t been suspended or expelled. But in real life they had been through were just timetables, managed very broad suspensions, you know, locked in cupboards for isolation. And then they found their way into these pupil referral units. So, you know, I didn’t expect it, but it give birth to a passion in that career moves and has been at it ever since.

03:02 – 03:23

MP

Wow. So a really long journey, actually, which is amazing that that you’re able to kind of put a lot of effort and work into it. It sounds wonderful. And so, it’s really interesting there that you mentioned about the barriers that a lot of these young people were facing. So did you find that you faced a lot of barriers in the journey to get to kind of working around this issue yourself?

03:23 – 03:50

PO

So yes and no. What I find is the biggest barrier, and it relates to class. And again, until I was doing my PhD, I didn’t even really have the language to articulate what was going on. So I have found the biggest barriers to be around identity markers, particularly in relation to class. So the accent I had in terms of operating within Northern Ireland, people trying to figure out what primary secondary school you went to to determine if you’re a Catholic or a Protestant, which would then determine the level of treatment you would receive.

03:50 – 04:17

PO

Things about my last name, certain jewellery you would wear, it’s all related to class and it’s all related to division, and for me it was quite difficult to navigate. And it, for some reason, became almost like second nature once I worked out what was going on to try and navigate different cultures of pockets of power, which led me into a career vortex when I was finishing my PhD because I very quickly came to realise there are certain identity markers that will give you privilege and power to enact change.

04:17 – 04:43

PO

And then throughout my PhD, it became all about putting myself in a strong position to enact the legislative change and cultural change I want to see to end school exclusion.

MP

Wow. So again, finding those ways to overcome the barriers which we can see in the work that you’re doing now, so really interesting. So, in being a leader in your field, so working in politics and in working around this kind of topic, what do you think then are the key qualities to leadership?

04:44 – 05:04

PO

Yeah, that’s a really difficult question. Also, I should say at the minute I work in Queen’s University as a Leadership Management Consultant, so we’re trying to teach key behaviours, skills, and qualities every day and, I mean, I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not, but my perspective is this: The best leaders are the people who work out what they believe in and what they stand for, essentially what their values are.

05:04 – 05:29

PO

And then once they have that worked out and they have cemented it in concrete, they then work within those boundaries. So it doesn’t matter if they’re faced with the most challenging ethical conundrums or placed in really difficult positions, you will always have the ability to make the right decision in line with your vision, mission, and values. Now in terms of skill set, for me, the skill comes in being able to navigate different people, different settings, and different perspectives in line with your value base.

05:29 – 05:50

PO

Now I didn’t realise that growing up in a post-conflict society and then going into politics in Northern Ireland, I kind of became a bit of a skills social chameleon because I was able to work out the scripts, identify the codes and then navigate them and, because I’ve got a really concrete value base now, I can do it in line with my ethical boundaries and understanding.

05:50 – 06:17

PO

For me, leadership feels, whenever people work outside their own boundaries and ethics without even realising it, so it’s that old phrase “If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything”. So the skill for me is working out what you believe in and then sticking to it

MP

Right, so a lot of value work there, kind of finding where that lies within you first, I suppose, and then working with diverse people to figure out how then to navigate as you said, those values when it comes to those maybe difficult conversations.

06:17 – 06:35

PO

Yeah, difficult conversations, difficult decisions and difficult environments. I mean, at different times throughout my career, and I know this is not unique to me because I speak to leaders on a daily basis, but I find myself going down paths that I thought were going to be the right place for me to go, to enact the right sort of change that I connect to my vision.

06:36 – 06:58

PO

But you kind of confine yourself down a path very quickly and in the depth of it, without realising this is completely out of line with what I believe and value. And the behaviour that I’m seeing is not conducive to what I think is appropriate. So then you’re faced with the really difficult position of “Do I stay here to mention power and privilege and enact change, or do I pair it back and go somewhere else that’s more in line with my values?”

06:58 – 07:15

PO

They’re the stickiest wickets I find myself in career wise, and they’re the ones I see young people and young leaders coming through, really grappling with at the minute, and everybody’s looking for a roadmap and there is none. You know, so your skill is plotting your own course, but being aware of where your destination is not kind of giving that up.

07:15 – 07:39

MP

Yeah, I suppose it feels like you’re always facing these challenges but finding ways to overcome them. And that’s a really good message. And that kind of leads me to the next question, which is, you know, you talked a lot there about change and how you can enact change in the way that aligns with your values. So how do you feel that young people can be encouraged to be supported, to become involved in campaigns around change?

07:39 – 07:55

PO

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a really interesting question because I could give you a broad brush answer, but my thoughts go immediately to excluded young people, those who are literally in the margins, slipping through the nets, don’t usually have the confidence to believe they can enact change, let alone step forward and do it themselves.

07:55 – 08:25

PO

So I really think there’s an onus, an emphasis on people who are in leadership roles to kind of reach out to the margins, to offer support, coaching, and mentorship in order to enable these young people to come forward. Some of the methodologies by which I am trying to do this in my new organisation are things like setting up citizen juries across Northern Ireland where excluded young people and either alternative education or pupil referral units or even our prison here are brought together to call in expert witnesses and deliberate on key questions.

08:25 – 08:45

PO

So the first question I’m going to put to them is should school exclusion be banned? And rather than just allowing them to go off their own lived experiences, bringing in experts who have more mature perspectives and then enabling them and working with them to deliberate to produce recommendations for policy. And another one is also giving young people the opportunity to make their lived experiences count.

08:45 – 09:04

PO

What I mean by that? So, if you’re a researcher, you’re going out and conducting interviews, but you don’t tend to take it back to the young people. I want to see a more circular economy, let them experience perspective. So we’re trying to establish and launch an app called Exclusion Watch that would be a free, easily accessible platform that young people, parents, and educators can record their experiences.

09:04 – 09:21

PO

And then we’ll go back to the young people, ask them for more information, and ask them, “What do you want to see change? And how can we work with you to do that?” You know, that’s a very transformational activist perspective on supporting excluded young people to enact change. But with that comes the burden of secure and charitable funding and all the rest.

09:21 – 09:42

PO

I think for me, if we are serious about empowering the next generation of leaders and it’s all young people not just privileged but excluded and marginalised young people, we have to create the opportunities for change. We have to reach into the margins, take responsibility collectively for where these young people are, and then provide them with practical routes that they can access to enact change.

09:42 – 10:16

PO

The next step for me is getting some of those excluded young people then to come and work with me as leaders because we have a saying in Northern Ireland: people can’t be what they can’t see. And I want excluded young people to say, look, if this person was excluded, if they were kicked out and they can now be in a leadership position in an organisation so can I. You know, so there’s representation, coaching, and mentoring methodologies for empowerment, but really just reaching out and taking responsibility for helping people to come through.

MP

Amazing, so really bringing young people on the journey with you and then giving them the tools to then be in those positions

10:16 – 10:56

MP

of leadership.

PO

Yeah

MP

Amazing, and you also talked a bit there about your future plans and the things coming up. So I wonder if there was anything else you wanted to kind of mention about those future plans, Anything exciting?

PO

Obviously, I’ve finished my PhD now and I had been working really hard on generating long lasting societal impact. So what I’ve done is I’ve taken the voices of excluded young people from my PhD research and I formed a company called the Institute for Disruption, which is a community interest company, and it exists to challenge the status quo, reframe persistently disruptive behaviour as a force for social good, and ultimately end school exclusion for good as well.

10:56 – 11:19

PO

So I’m working on that at the minute. We’re aiming to launch at the end of April, and we’re going to be doing those three things that I discussed. Setting up citizen juries, launching an app, and then also provide an opportunities to coach, mentor, and then help young people lead themselves. So that’s my highest priority on the agenda now.

MP

Well, it sounds like you’re going full steam ahead with such important work.

11:19 – 11:37

MP

So thank you so much for your time and for answering all the questions. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds for you and your future endeavours.

PO

Well, thank you. It was lovely to see you. And I’m looking forward to being back soon and to see all the team at Cumberland Lodge. Thank you.

MP

Lovely. Thank you so much.

11:37 – 11:40

PO

Thank you.

11:40 – 11:58

MP

Thanks for listening. You can find out more about the work we do at Cumberland Lodge with young people and beyond by visiting cumberlandlodge.ac.uk. You can also find us on social media @CumberlandLodge.