Leaders as Servants First

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Everyone in education has heard the line that the principal is key to the success of a school.

I have never been comfortable with this, more so after 12 years as an administrator in a variety of schools.  The administrator plays a key role, but the overall success of the school depends more on the leadership style of the principal.

It is difficult to teach a leadership style and to be honest, I am not sure how you would do this.

As administrators, we are well trained in a number of areas.  We take a whole host of courses that prepare us to deal with the administrative side of the job.  We are well equipped to deal with ministry regulations, curriculum expectations, school finance and management practices.

We are not well trained on how to deal effectively and compassionately with staff and the wider community.

I say this because over the years I have heard so many stories of administrators fumbling relationships with staff, parents and the wider community.  I have worked in several schools where I replaced administrators who had run roughshod over the emotional landscape of their school.  To be fair, I have also replaced excellent administrators and in these cases, I have done my best to continue to support their excellent practices.

The problem seems to be that you can’t teach ‘heart’.  You can’t teach a principal to lead from the back, to empower their staff and to make themselves the servant leader in the school.

Years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about how to test for true servant leadership:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the last privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

This is not new.  Greenleaf wrote about Servant Leadership over 40 years ago. However, this essential ingredient in teaching people to become effective leaders is entirely lacking.

The result is troubling.  Administrators regularly act as if the teacher, educational assistant, custodian or parent do not truly matter.  Administrators routinely believe that their way of leading is the only way and what they know is what is best for their school.  The idea that they should stand back and play a supporting role is lost on many people.

This is not to say that there are no great leaders out there.  I have met many of them, some in our own district and many more at conferences I have attended and learning groups I have joined.

“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It will be seen by many that writing about this smacks of disloyalty to other administrators.

This may be true, but I sincerely believe that we are not put in these positions to support other administrators, we are here to support our staff, students, and community.  We are here to create the conditions for the best learning environment possible.  We are here not to put our stamp on our school community, but to get out of the way and allow others to thrive.

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I love reading the work of George Couros.  He is a true leader when it comes to innovation in schools and the use of technology in education.  Most importantly however, he is a true believer in the importance of building healthy relationships.

When I talk about “innovation in education”, creativity in schools, or meaningful use of technology, I always begin by saying that nothing I say matters if you do not build relationships in schools. There is no “culture of innovation” if there is no positive culture. It is the foundation of which we build things upon.

George Couros

Maybe this is one reason why schools are failing to become centers of innovation.  If everything depends on the ‘vision’ of one individual, how can we expect innovation to take place?

How do we expect our staff to really express their creative voice?

This is what I see.  I am happy to hear from others with an opposing view. Whatever the case, we should consider the role of the leader and the enabler, the true servant of their community.

This is where true growth and innovation will flourish.

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