Inspiration can strike where you least expect it. For Rob Worrall, a hotel swimming pool in Kenya back in 2016 was the setting for an impromptu business meeting that would change his life, and the lives of many others in East African communities.
“I was in the country delivering a leadership development workshop to around 60 businesses,” Rob recalls. “I’d just submitted the final version of my PhD the previous December, and while doing some lengths in the hotel pool, I heard two men talking about the types of things I’d written. I swam right up to them and said ‘Hey, I think you’d be interested in my work’ – not the most orthodox place for a business meeting,” he admits “but they were interested.”
It would soon transpire that one of them was Finn Kjaerulf of the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY), a serendipitous match that would open doors into Africa.
Rob had spent the better part of the past ten years developing strategic leadership programmes in the public sector, and began his PhD at Anglia Ruskin University in 2009, where he became a pivotal part of the research team responsible for enacting transformational change through leadership. His work is focussed on communities that face tremendous hardship, particularly in Eastern Africa, where his work has centred.
Following the "somewhat awkward" swimming pool meeting, Rob exchanged emails and Skype calls with Finn, before being asked to go to Kenya to roll out a pilot of his thesis material; a model he calls Place-based Transformational Leadership Development (P-BLD).
The pilot was the culmination of years of painstaking research, designed to enable leaders to tackle urban violence in Eastern African communities. “P-BLD is just one strand of how we’re trying to prevent violence,” he explains. “We’re doing that by talking directly with the police in these communities, but it’s more about collective leadership. We’re telling people on the ground about their human rights. We’re producing information leaflets and booklets. We’re facilitating the conversations that need to happen in those areas.”
Essentially, Rob and the P-BLD provide a type of toolkit for communities, with the goal that they will one day be equipped to fight issues like violence and corruption for themselves, developing leaders of their own and making a lasting difference for the people in these areas.
The project is supported by DIGNITY and partner organisation MidRift Human Rights Network (MRH), and is an integral part of their intersectional Urban Violence Prevention programme in Kenya and its neighbouring countries. But his place-leadership development research has connected him with partners in the UK, New Zealand and United States.
Having already worked for the Deputy UK Prime Minister’s office, a number of government departments and agencies, and in all corners of the globe, Rob’s next adventure takes him to Uganda, where DIGNITY has plans to pilot the P-BLD programme in the coming months, followed by a pilot launch in Guatemala too.
Rob's tireless commitment to improving the lives of communities less fortunate than our own was recently recognised, as he received the Ruskin Medal for impactful research. “It’s a testament to ARU’s investment in me” he explains. What a difference a swim makes.
Rob Worrall is an alumnus of Anglia Ruskin University and studied his PhD at the Lord Ashcroft International School.