Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Servant Leadership

Imagine working in a school where the administration puts the needs of the organization before his or her own needs. Imagine an environment where that administration, instead of merely paying lip service to educational principle, casts aside politics, ego, ambition, and resume building, chooses to vigorously pursue excellence. This is not a utopia I am asking you to envisage. It is the world of servant leadership.

I first encountered the concept last spring while doing research for an educational project. Since there is an abundance of good and comprehensive information available on the Internet, I won’t go into a detailed explanation of it other than to say that the underlying philosophy involves managers (administrators) recognizing their staffs as the most important element in achieving the goals of the organization (effectively educating students), and do everything in their power to help the staff achieve those goals. While some object to this management approach as being little more than a form of condescension, as opposed to, for example, making the staff partners in the operation of the organization (which, in my experience usually is little more than an exercise in rhetoric), I can’t help but think that its true practice would have a revolutionary impact on staff morale and hence staff effectiveness.

As many teachers will know, the standard style of management is hierarchical, with a vast distance separating the leaders from the led. The greatest difficulty with this form is that it often involves an either conscious or unconscious condescension on the part of management. By virtue of their position, they frequently adopt propriety language betraying their true feelings about those who work ‘beneath’ them. How often have I cringed to hear those in positions of authority talk about ‘my staff’ or ‘my teachers!’ Such language and biases do nothing to foster the kind of true collaboration needed to succeed in education today.

However, one of the major impediments to servant leadership is that its success is almost entirely dependent upon the personality of the administrator. A questionnaire found on one website
underscores the difficulties of finding a true servant leader:

Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice
your own self-interest for the good of the group?

Do people believe that you want to hear their ideas and
will value them?

Do people believe that you will understand what is
happening in their lives and how it affects them?

Do people come to you when the chips are down or
when something traumatic has happened in their lives?

Do others believe that you have a strong awareness for
what is going on?

Do others follow your requests because they want to
as opposed to because they “have to”?

Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the
organization when you are around?

Do others have confidence in your ability to anticipate
the future and its consequences?

Do others believe you are preparing the organization to
make a positive difference in the world?

Do people believe that you are committed to helping
them develop and grow?

Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization
that you lead?

I strongly believe that there is much merit in adopting a new management model. But until school boards are willing to adopt fresh criteria in their selection processes, including psychological testing of perspective administrators, servant leadership is likely to remain a rarity in public education.

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