Sunday, January 18, 2015

What servant leadership means to me

The traditional idea of leadership was power. Leaders were expected to control and coerce. To make sure that followers were productive and efficient. To enforce policies and procedures. Principals and teachers were praised for 'running a tight ship' or 'keeping their ducks in a row.' A quiet classroom and stern educators were considered signs of leadership. Even today, when people I encounter discover I'm a high school principal, it's often followed by comments related to compliance, discipline, or control.

But I have very different ideas about what it truly means to be a leader. I don't believe a person needs positional authority to lead. It can come from anyone who has a desire to serve and the capacity to do two things: challenge and inspire. Leaders use their influence to empower others, to help them be the best version of themselves. As a result, leaders create more leaders.

To me this is servant leadership. The servant-leader may not have positional authority. In fact, he or she may be uncommonly lacking positional authority. But through an attitude of service gains influence that helps others "dream more, learn more, do more, and become more." Leaders challenge and inspire.

A few years ago I was driving to school and finishing off an apple that was my breakfast. As I finished, I rolled down the window to toss the apple core out the window. When I let it go, I could feel my doctoral ring fly off my finger. My gut sank, and I swear I even heard the ping as it struck the pavement. I instantly pulled my truck to the side of the road to begin searching, but in the morning darkness there was no use.

Several times I returned to the spot to comb the side of the highway for the lost ring. A few friends offered to help. I even used a metal detector to assist the search. But the ring was gone, presumably forever.

Months later I received a phone call on a Sunday afternoon. A man's voice asked if my name was David Geurin. "Yes," I replied wondering what this was about.

"Did you happen to lose a class ring?" he continued. I was stunned by the question. Surely this couldn't be what it seemed.

Sure enough, the ring had been found.

The man on the phone explained he hadn't found the ring. A friend of his found it. His name was Lane.

Lane walks all over town, usually while sipping a large fountain drink as he scans the ground looking for loose change. Lane is mentally handicapped and unable to live on his own. He lives in a group home but spends most of his time walking and looking for treasure. And boy did he find something interesting when he picked up the gold ring!

He carried it in his pocket for a while, not realizing there was a name inscribed on the inside, thinking there was no way to find who it belonged to. When he showed it to a friend, he noticed my name and asked if Lane would like to see it returned to its owner. They found my number listed in the phone book.

Lane was so proud that he had returned the ring. He truly was a hero in this story. He could've bought sodas for years if he had selfishly used the ring for his gain. But his actions were noble and through his selflessness and his big heart he did something only a leader can do. He challenged me and inspired me. He caused me to "dream more, learn more, do more, and become more."

Lane's actions helped me learn about gratitude, empathy, and unselfishness. I was humbled by his spirit of wanting to help me, a stranger who he didn't even know. I immediately recognized that I was the follower and he was the leader, in this chain of events

Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant-leader in 1970. His ideas in many ways repeated ones from ancient texts, and yet in modern leadership practice, the idea of being a servant was far from what leaders were expected to be. The following are a few quotes from Greenleaf:

"The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

"The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: 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?"

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Robert Greenleaf recognized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Indeed, he had great faith that servant-leader organizations could change the world. In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, Greenleaf articulated what is often called the “credo.” There he said:

“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Teacher appreciation shouldn't be reserved for just one week a year

Each year we do our very best to show our appreciation to teachers during the official time for doing so, Teacher Appreciation Week. This official time of recognition is celebrated the first full week in May. This year the dates are May 4-8. But my thought to ponder is why should we wait until the first week of May to show teachers how much they are appreciated?

We actually try to build staff morale and celebrate our teachers throughout the school year. However, I realize we can always do better. Any success experienced by a school administrator is owed directly to the staff and students in the school. And nothing can harm motivation like feeling unappreciated. In fact, I've read numerous lists and surveys that show not feeling appreciated is a bigger concern for employees than tangible rewards like salary (although these can go hand in hand).

This past week our conference principals met here in Bolivar for one of our regular meetings to collaborate and conduct the business of the conference (Central Ozarks). As part of the agenda, the COC president, Chip Arnette from Branson HS, asked each principal to share a couple of ideas for showing appreciation to staff and raising morale. This time of collaboration proved invaluable for challenging and inspiring me as I consider ways to show appreciation in ongoing ways.

Todd Whitaker writes that one of the most important jobs of a principal is to make sure that teachers are more excited about teaching tomorrow than they are today. Clearly, a positive school climate with happy, motivated teachers is going to result in a much better experience for students. I'm sure there are studies that would support this idea. It is practically self-evident.

So what are a few of the ideas shared in our meeting?
1. Everyone agreed our teachers love 'jeans days,' especially when it is a surprise.
2. Handwritten notes of appreciation are powerful, from the principal, students, or other teachers. One of our counselors led a school-wide activity during the holiday season that asked students to write notes of appreciation to staff members (teachers and support staff) on paper Christmas ornaments. The ornaments were then collected and given to the individuals before leaving for break.

3. Play games with staff to keep things light and have fun together. A healthy school takes time to play, laugh, and  have fun.

4. Several ideas involved food. Teachers enjoy eating and socializing. It's been said "be sure to feed the teachers so they won't eat the students!" Cook breakfast, order in snacks, have a barbeque. One school shared they have a barbeque once a quarter. In the past, our school had Payday Breakfasts. Every payday we would eat together to celebrate. Even though the Payday Breakfasts were great, over time, they became so routine that they have gone away for a while. Sometimes even good ideas need a break.

5. Staff member of the month. Showcase your staff, their background, and interests. Share this on the school website so your community can know your teachers and support staff better.

6. Have events off-site. Several schools reported having Christmas parties, but there are lots of ways to do an off-site event that will be enjoyed by all.

7. Several schools reported having social committees who help to plan events, celebrate birthdays, and find ways to make teachers feel appreciated.

8. Praise staff members publicly and/or privately. A word of encouragement makes one feel noticed and one's efforts appreciated. We discussed briefly if praise was better in public or private. I've come to prefer private praise or public praise that is anonymous. The teacher knows he or she is the one being complimented. But some teachers might be embarrassed by public praise.

So these are just a few of the ideas that were discussed. There were many more. I was very proud to see a group of administrators coming together to share ways to help teachers feel more excited about the profession and making a difference for students.

But the most important take-away for me is the reminder that we should always be looking for ways to provide a better experience for our teachers. When teachers feel appreciated, so many things will fall into place. So I would encourage you to celebrate teachers and all staff in your building throughout the school year and not just in the 'official' appreciation weeks!

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