What school leaders need to do to make things happen

Leaders are there to provide direction. But Robert Greenleaf theorises that the leaders should become servants to the led if they want their ideas implemented

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 11:47pm

At the start of a new academic year, when schools hold high hopes of accomplishing goals, it's a good time to consider how Robert Greenleaf's concepts of servant leadership can be used to fulfil this purpose.

Nowadays, schools are run like corporations, complete with vision and mission statements, strategic and operational plans as well as quality assurance mechanisms.

To guide development, school leaders need to develop a school vision and mission, or revisit and revitalise an existing one, to fit the changing school context. They must also formulate plans for realising the desired state as envisaged.

School vision and mission statements look similar, often couched in lofty language, but are rarely fully realised. Even when laborious action plans are implemented, the results usually lack the desired spirit or benefits they are supposed to bring to students and teachers.

Why do things often fall so short? It may be because of leadership practice.

Traditionally, it is believed that when the head puts forth a vision for the school and formulates plans to implement it, things will naturally fall in line as long as people are closely monitored and enough carrots and sticks used, or if the leaders themselves are charismatic enough to win followers' commitment to perform well.

But often the reality is that the led show varied responses to such leadership: at best compliance on the surface and, at worst, open rebellion. Complex organisations like schools do not function well simply because of the leader's charisma or a top-down approach to management. They require their leaders to play different roles at different junctures.

The familiar top-down leadership is needed when it comes to visioning. Leaders are there to provide direction. Overseeing the entire school from the vantage-point, school leaders need deep reflections on their leadership and its effectiveness first. They should then help their staff see the real world, with all its threats and opportunities, and how best they can capitalise on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses to safeguard the school's survival and development in today's highly competitive environment.

They need to make the school vision as clear, relevant and engaging as possible with real-life stories and vivid examples. Input from the staff must be valued as it can enrich the proposed vision. Once developed, it is upheld. The process works like a normal pyramid, a metaphor Ken Blanchard uses to illustrate the primal responsibility of leaders.

Complex organisations like schools do not function well simply because of the leader's charisma or a top-down approach to management

Common views hold that all the leader has to do next is press the staff to move forward and censure the wayward.

What intrigues many is Robert Greenleaf's idea that the leader should become a servant to the led at this stage. In Blanchard's interpretation, the hierarchical pyramid is turned upside down, giving top consideration to the frontline people, those who really make the vision come true through their day-to-day work.

School leaders thus become supporters of the staff, helping them to achieve what is relevant in the vision by providing the necessary resources and authority for the job, counsel and mentoring in cases of doubts and incompetence, training for the novice or old hands which are involved in new ventures, recognition and reward for the worthy, support for the downhearted, or coordination for potentially rivalling groups.

To put it simply, leaders seek to empower, enable and ennoble their staff so that they can exploit their fullest potential while implementing the school vision. Feeling sincerely cared for by the leadership and seeing that realisation of the school vision dovetails with realisation of their potential, the led will naturally come on board and make the entire implementation process zestful and relevant.

Not too many leaders really understand the meaning of serving the vision or purpose of the organisations and simultaneously serving the ones whom they rely on to achieve the vision and who duly deserve genuine care.

True and effective service is the trademark of a servant leader. The lack of it explains why school visions fail to materialise. If school leaders cling to personal pride or interests and see their staff as mere pawns to fulfil school functions, there is no doubt that the school vision will just remain an empty slogan.

Robin Cheung is a retired school principal