School & District Management Opinion

Servant Leadership: It Is Easy to Forget

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 18, 2016 4 min read
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This quote appeared a few days back on a LinkedIn homepage and sent to us by one of our contacts. Its simple, profound truth set us to thinking. Why isn’t this on the website of every educational leadership program and on the desk or wall of every leader? Isn’t this the jolt we need every now and then to bring us back to the reason we entered this leadership arena in the first place? Most of us wanted to serve more students than we could in our classrooms and we wanted to serve adult educators as well as the children. But, we do forget sometimes.

Reflecting on and writing often about the importance of leading safe, nurturing, encouraging, inclusive learning environments, the focus is on the organization as a whole. We talk about the role of the staff and teachers, and how to help students to flourish as they maintain values and actions that support such an environment. A 2014 Brookings Institute Study reported that “student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service...and that superintendents account for a small fraction of a percent (0.3) of student differences in achievement.” It also reported:

Superintendents may well be as important to student achievement as the popular perception, their portrayal in the media, and their salaries suggest, but there is almost no quantitative research that addresses their impact.

Studies like this can misdirect boards of education to recruit leaders who are effective in managing the business of the district. Managers do important work and monitor and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of an organization but most of them don’t serve or lead people. The bottom line motivates them. We know the difference between a manger and a leader in our heads and our hearts. Leaders encourage us ot be more than we think we can ever be, they inspire and we choose to follow. Why? Because they serve.

The superintendent’s effect on student achievement, we believe, begins in the hearts and minds of the leaders and best begins with the superintendent. Superintendents matter. Ask anyone in a district where superintendent turnover is rampant. Chaos reigns, political jockeying is a way of life and others go undercover searching for anonymity or safety.

When thinking about servant leadership our minds turn to the late Robert Greenleaf. From The Center for Servant Leadership website:

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.

Three questions are identified on that website to determine the reach of a servant leader:

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

Questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers are important to determine the existence of one thing or another. We like to ask for examples to support the choice. Or, we ask....

  1. In what ways do those we serve grow as persons?
  2. How do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
  3. How do the least privileged in our organization benefit from my work?

An Example: Evaluation and Feedback
In the attempt to maintain an accountability process, for decades schools have required supervisors to observe and evaluate teachers. Over time this process has grown to mammoth proportions, taking up time and energy, resulting in something called ‘feedback’ and/or a ‘score’ of some kind indicating the one observed receiving a rank ranging from something like ‘ineffective’ to ‘highly effective’. This does nothing to encourage or motivate the teacher or the principal being evaluated. It simply labels them one thing or another. Much like how students are evaluated, the grade is the end of the conversation.

Identifying what is wrong and telling how to fix it is common in observations, evaluations, and in work with students. Feedback has come to mean, for many, a dreaded message delivered with the bad news of what’s wrong. The result? Ask yourself if, as a result of conferencing with a teacher, or a teacher with a student, “How did they grow as people as a result?” “In what ways did I help them become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants themselves?” and “How did the interaction consider the effect on the least privileged?”

The Cascade
Without the model beginning at the top, it is unlikely a difference will be made in the organization. When the superintendent is a servant leader, s/he remains connected to all, even the least privileged students with an intention of the work growing, independent, motivated, healthy, wiser students/teachers/staff members/administrators. Through that modeling, it becomes more likely that other leaders in the organization turn toward the servant within themselves and embody it in the community. School leaders and the teachers are unquestionably serving students but do students think about that? Can we articulate what we model?

No matter the job held in the district, the unifying purpose and the passion for the work is making it possible for students, all students, to experience success. None of us can forget who we serve. The manner in which we speak to one another, the respect we show to all remains based upon that sense of service with students at the center. As we reenter the school year, it is a good time for us to reflect a bit. Are we leading with a servant’s heart? Can others tell?

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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.