Education Opinion

Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Lead?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 09, 2015 6 min read
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Each of us has our own perspectives, beliefs, and biases. We see the world through our own eyes, carrying with us our past experiences and our present circumstances. How then, can we actually see and know what is the true problem or the best solution? Grandmothers all shared the old adage “Two heads are better than one.” We agree. And ten heads may be better than two! Whether planning for a learning opportunity for students or a meeting with colleagues, the perspectives of others opens minds, shares the power of the leader and strengthens the community and is the practice of a servant leader.

John Greenleaf, whose early essay introduced the concept of servant leadership in The Servant as Leader, would have said certain perspectives make all the difference. One who desires to serve first can then lead as a servant leader but one who seeks first to lead is less likely to live as a leader in service. The Greenleaf Center website poses three guiding questions:

  • 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 least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

Again this morning, the Internet carries of video of a police officer drawing his gun on teenagers at a pool party that got out of control. Police and concert goers battled in New Jersey over access to the show and a family in Cleveland draws our attention to the life of a bipolar single mom who died in a struggle with police, asking the public to remember her name and those of other woman who have died in custody. There is violence between them and those they serve, not everywhere but in certain places. Each time we watch one of these stories, we think about our work. What will happen when video comes to school? When the hidden, private and intense moments of teaching and leading come to the internet, will the cameras have captured our best or our worst?

We see ourselves as public servants, as are the police. But, we wonder how we preserve the desire to serve and demonstrate actions in service when we forget who we are to serve. Most of us became educators because of a desire to serve children and to make the world a better place for more of us by placing the future in the well-prepared hands of those children. But, society changes. New immigrants arrive and the American dream of becoming middle class seems more remote for them. Those with runaway wealth in our society are not sending their children to public schools with the children of these new immigrants. And, so, as summer comes, we are asking ourselves to remember who we chose to serve. And would we choose it again, for next year and beyond? It cannot be that we function as servant leaders in education if we have forgotten the children and instead have become survivalists, serving legislatures and regulatory agencies, serving a political process and the dynamics of boards caught in them or serving the adults in the system if they have lost sight of whom they serve.

It Is Time Worth Spending
It is time worth spending to get back in touch with those we are called to serve. It is good summer work. The problems and challenges before us are many. Every one impacts a child. So, let’s go summertime listening, in the places and to the people who haven’t regularly come to talk to us.

Welcoming the perspectives of others when the objective is to solve a problem, plan through complexity, or, anticipate the way past political obstacles can present another multitude of problems and take a longer time than if we functioned solo. Or so it seems. So often the backlash from decisions that are not inclusive create situations that after the fact require time, thought, communication, and sometimes, changes and adjustments. They separate the servant leader from the community of those affected by the decision. Then, he or she cannot be a servant to that community and is less likely to lead it as well.

Had welcome been offered at the beginning of the process, the leader would be standing alongside an empowered group whose understanding and agreement about the decision accelerate the process of developing the broader buy-in to the decision. Rather than reacting, time and preparation are spent in advance resulting in less need for spending time in reaction.

Presented with an opportunity to solve problems and plan solutions by welcoming the perspectives of others, not just those who agree with us, changes where energy is spent and by whom. Actually the better we get at this, the more we will understand the struggles students have when they are placed in groups and told to “work it out”. There are more advantages to welcoming collaboration than one might think. Perspectives on collaboration are probably based on the type of leader one is or chooses to be.

Are You a Servant Leader?
In preparing this post, integrity, something that we have written about before, arises again. In the forward of the book Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf, Steven Covey writes:

The private victory of integrity is the foundation for the public victories of establishing a common vision, discipline, and passion. Leadership becomes an interdependent work rather than an immature interplay between strong, independent, ego-driven rulers and compliant, dependent followers (p.10).

Establishing a “common vision, discipline and passion” requires the open welcoming of those served. The purpose of the invitation is to listen and learn and grow, with representatives from as many constituencies as possible in order to be sure the decisions being made best serve those affected by them. From Greenleaf.org: “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

School leaders are the recipients of decisions made by others in power. A new requirement, a new standardized test, a new curriculum, a new set of standards all come “from away” and are usually not the result of our having been invited into the decision. That should serve as motivation to not turn around and repeat the same type of power-based leadership in the communities in which we serve. Let that be a reminder to be a servant leader and prevent the impact of a unilateral decision from hurting the communities in which we work.

Originally, in his 1977 essay, Greenleaf wrote:

A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principle is emerging, which holds the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader (pp. 23-24).

True 38 years ago and certainly still so. The leaders we need are the leaders who serve those in their communities, and by serving can lead with the moral integrity that calls forth the best in all of us.

Greenleaf, R.K. (2002). Servant Leadership. Mahway, NJ : Paulist Press

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.