On Servant Leadership

In a number of recent books, articles and discussions on Twitter, the concept of “servant leadership” has come up. It’s one that resonates with my own values and way I work – perhaps learned from my family, as much as the environments and academic leaders I’ve ever worked with.

What does servant leadership mean to me?

When I was younger, I learned my first principles of leadership through the Air Cadet Organisation – something I was delighted to rejoin and serve as a member of staff later in life. I’ve always been drawn to some of the thinking and reading that the Services offer – indeed, it’s fascinating to me that we call them “Services”, and even Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’s motto reminds us that we “Serve to Lead”.

In the Air Cadets, in the 1990s, we learned “functional leadership” as it was taught then, and the thinking process was about what a leader does and what a leader looks at and focuses on. As well as helpful mnemonics about “PICSIE” or “SMEAC” to execute tasks, we were taught Adair’s model of functional leadership – in which he described the three components of success:

In my opinion, “Hero” leaders tend to focus on the task, or individuals needs. They get the job done, they are all powerful, and it all relies on their “dynamism” or “charisma”. The team is a distinct third in their priority list.

If one is cynical, we can argue that a number of poor leaders in schools are so focused on their own personal needs as an individual – career development, being seen to be successful, or being able to get that promotion – that they perhaps even relegate the task in to second place.

Servant leaders, by contrast, put the team’s needs first – believing that a successful team is the most essential component to getting the task done. They will prioritise the team’s needs over their own – but also, sometimes, over the task. If it’s too much work (e.g. “let’s write our entire curriculum in to booklets at the end of the summer term!”), they’ll relegate the task importance second to their team.

In the later evolution of this, Adair talks about situational leadership – there are times when you have to change your support/directive nature to accomplish different things – but I think this is expected: we can all do different things at different times. For me, the heart of servant leadership goes back to which of those three circles are most critical, and closest to your values. When push comes to shove – what’s your priority? Team? Task? Or individual?

What does servant leadership look like for me?

I’m a middle leader – so for me, servant leadership is about the conditions that I can create for my own team, my students and Department and colleagues. As I see it – my job is to look out for the team, which means that individuals will thrive and then we’ll all be able to take on the task.

As much as possible, we operate on a culture of “no surprises” – which means a lot of work is engaged with forward planning, and scanning for the things we need to know. I have written about some of these process-approaches before: whether it’s on creating workbooks, whether it’s about Department bulletins, or whether it’s about the ways we work as a team. I don’t have success – we do, as a Department. I don’t have great results – we do, as a Department. My job, as I see it, is just to make the right conditions for the team to do its’ best work.

Far better and more insightful authors than me have written about this, and the evolution of military thinking and leadership: I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek’s work (Leaders Eat Last is particularly focused on this, though the Infinite Game is a great read when you think about “Trusting Teams”), and I remain hugely inspired by the Stephen Covey-influenced Captain Marquet in his superlative book “Turn the Ship Around”. These are people who have spent a lot of time with, or lived, that life of service to their nation, and their ideas and the clarity with which they communicate them are powerful beyond measure.

But to me, educational leaders and thinkers like Sam Strickland, Kat Howard and John Tomsett & Jonny Uttley are just the same in terms of their approach. They talk about leadership, wellbeing and culture – but whatever their focus, the values are shared. The teams they lead are safe, inspired and supported by them – and that is the result of a deliberate, values-based decision to act, think and prioritise the team above all else. I don’t know if they would agree, or define it in the same way, but to me, they model servant leadership in the same way as David Marquet does.

What are the risks of servant leadership?

I think servant leadership can often be mistaken for other things, and I have found that there are a number of challenges of servant leadership – particularly in a culture that is not aligned to it, or doesn’t recognise it or the values that it brings.

First, you run a risk of being overlooked and not thought of as “a leader”. Many schools – and many job adverts – cling to the notion of charismatic and dynamic leadership, and the hero leader narrative. Servant leaders don’t look like that; they don’t think, talk or interview like that – and while I don’t presume to say that there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to be a leader, you do want to be aware that you will potentially appear different to other people if you’re competing for a job. For me, I am comfortable with my values, and I’d rather find somewhere that fits them – but the persistence and prevalence of hero leader words in job adverts in TES means that it could be some time before “the right culture” finds you!

Second, and I think this is perhaps more critical in a Kat Howard-inspired reflection, your own personal sense of self and well-being can easily be lost in service to others. When “it’s for the kids” or your member of staff who “just needs five minutes”, you can easily lose your own work and end up doing all the hours to compensate. You can end up being ‘a people pleaser’, and not having your own values, vision or direction.

Third, I think this is particularly critical when you’re not on someone else’s team – if you work in a servant leadership culture, then you’ve got someone who will look out for you, and tell you when to stop. If you’re a servant leader in a hero culture, you run the risk of burning out for someone else’s agenda and gain, and no one will stop you doing it to yourself!

These haven’t been easy lessons to learn, necessarily – but I remain resolved that servant leadership is the philosophy that best fits my values, my approach to my work and professional life, and how and who I want to be. I accept and understand the risks and challenges are part of the cost of doing business, and I am increasingly comfortable with defaulting to “my values” rather than “what should I do?”. It’s something I actively seek out whenever I look at leadership reading, or in school’s reflections about themselves – and I think it’s a valuable addition to the dialogue around how we do education. I hope we see more of it, and that it becomes a wider narrative context!

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