Being a principal is tough but rewarding work. So is being a classroom teacher, of course, but the principalship comes with an additional load you may not have predicted as you prepared yourself for the role: often working in isolation. Want to feel less alone? Want to lighten your load? If so, servant leadership is for you. Read on to learn more.
What is servant leadership?
Servant leadership is leading in a way that shows others you prioritize their needs and care about them first. It also means that you trust that they bring their very best selves to work every day—and that you’re doing everything you can to help them be their best. Servant leadership is about asking “What can I do today to help you?” and “How can I make today better for you?”
Since it was first outlined as a leadership philosophy in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, servant leadership has become more well-known in the business world than in education. The bias toward business may have something to do with why Greenleaf coined the term in the first place: He was responding to the top-down, bottom-line leadership style he’d observed in American businesses. The practice of leading through service is an ancient one, however, and servant leadership is a natural fit for school leaders, and for school principals in particular. Many educators enter the field because of their passion for helping others. Servant leaders spend their days finding ways to help others and lighten their loads.
Servant leadership at work in schools
Research tells us servant leadership is effective in education. One 2010 study of elementary schools found a direct relationship between servant leadership characteristics in school principals and how “organizationally healthy” the school was deemed: the more that school principals were cited as supportive and values-oriented by teachers, the better the school climate.
Servant leadership is about asking ‘What can I do today to help you?’ and ‘How can I make today better for you?’
Another study, conducted in 2017, found that servant leadership qualities in principals were a strong determining factor in whether teachers were happy with their jobs. Crucially for the overall success of schools and the impact on students, principals who demonstrated servant leadership characteristics also had a strong positive effect on teacher retention rates.
How to become a servant leader
While servant leadership will come more naturally to some people than to others, there are steps any school principal can take to reflect the tenets of servant leadership and reorient their leadership style toward service. Greenleaf defines 10 core components to servant leadership that can help you begin this effort. Here they are, along with some ways to bring them to life in your work:
Think about some recent encounters you’ve had with teachers. Did you start the conversation with “How are you?” out of politeness? Try to go one step further next time. Take a moment to listen and then respond with something that affirms what the person said, like “Glad to hear you are doing well.” Or offer a follow-up question, like “How is your family?”
Engaging more deeply in these exchanges will really only take a few minutes and is a valuable way to begin to show people that you care about them.
2. Show empathy
Sometimes it’s hard to take a few extra moments out of your already packed day and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, the act of doing this will help you understand why someone is feeling the way they are feeling. When you know this, you can provide healthier solutions. Not doing this could lead to quick judgments and rash decisions.
Take, for example, that teacher who arrives late again because her aging dog got lost. You are upset because you’ve had to cover her class yet another time. But when you keep in mind that this teacher has no children of her own, that this dog is her family, you’ll notice that it’s easier to react with kindness.
3. Support healing
This core component is about how you can support others. In schools, there is never a lack of ways servant leaders can support their staff.
By covering a class or offering “duty free” passes, you can be there for your teachers. Supporting them emotionally means continually focusing on their well-being. One way to do this is to put aside the “business” part of a conversation until after you find out how a person is and what they need. For example, yes, you’ll probably need to talk to that chronically late teacher about her tardiness. But that part of the conversation can happen after she’s been shown the support she needs on what, for her, was a tough morning.
4. Practice self-awareness
A servant leader knows themselves and can share their characteristics with others.
One thing my staff knows about me is that I generally have a positive outlook. If they ever see me getting grumpy, it’s most likely because I haven’t eaten. I remind them, “If I seem snappy, please ask me if I’ve eaten today.” Sharing this has made me more human in their eyes. It’s also made it much easier to avoid conflicts. “Oh, she just needs a granola bar,” a teacher might think if I respond a little tersely. They might even bring me one and ask me what they wanted to ask me while I munch on it.
We encourage you to try to live by the mantra “No one should ever have to ask, ‘What mood is the boss in today?’” Servant leaders need to understand who they are and manage their emotions.
5. Use persuasion over authority
Yes, it is true that as an administrator you can make top-down decisions that everyone has to follow. By adopting the philosophy “Always have a good reason for making a decision,” you’ll find that you are able to lead with persuasion because people will follow good decisions that have sound reasoning.
Take, for example, asking staff to move their classrooms. This is a lot of work, and many staff members do not want to move rooms, nor do they want to volunteer to move. You could just tell them they are moving and they would, and for the next few months, resentment could make things uncomfortable. However, if you approach the move with sound reasons, you’ll likely find that more teachers will agree with your decision to move everyone. You might explain that moving grade 5 classrooms to the other side of the building, for example, will allow students to flex group into their readiness classrooms more quickly, so teachers will be able to collaborate more efficiently.
6. Focus on conceptualization
As leaders, it is our job to write goals, implement action steps, and keep the wheels of progress moving forward. It’s hard work to do all this on top of running a school with hundreds of humans who all have their own ideas of what progress is. Consider this: what you focus on grows. If all our time is focused on discipline, for example, what will grow is a hefty discipline program that has more rules than anyone can follow. If we focus on what we want to happen, we can see it and lead others to see it, too.
A big problem in many of our schools is that students are not doing their homework. I’m sure you’ve heard many good excuses, but the facts are the facts: the homework isn’t getting done! You can focus on consequences for the students, like detention or bad grades, but what we really want is for students to get the skills practice they need to be successful. If we focus on that, instead of missed work, the solution is different. Now we can conceptualize a place during school hours where students can finish their homework when they don’t finish it at home. Maybe that’s a student success center during recess or before school that gives all your students a chance to be that student (you know, the one who always has their work done).
7. Have foresight
It often falls on your shoulders to protect your staff from some of what is happening outside your school community. This can be especially difficult if you are not thinking ahead or don’t have the experience to know what could be coming. Using some known techniques, such as PEST analysis, can help build your skills in this area. PEST is an acronym and stands for political, economic, socio-cultural, and technological. It helps you explore how anything related to these areas might influence your school.
Imagine that you want to implement a tool to help you find out the social-emotional health of all your students, and your teachers all agree this would be helpful. By using the PEST analysis, you will gain a much clearer idea of whether or not your community will support your school in this endeavor. Your foresight will save you much effort (and, sometimes, heartache).
8. Be a good steward
Servant leaders take responsibility when things don’t go as planned in their buildings and, on the flip side, give credit when things are going well so that others can shine. Leading by example is key to servant leadership. Ask yourself, “Do I know what every role in my building entails? Have I tried to be in their shoes? Have I asked what’s working and what isn’t for my school staff?”
Knowing how to manage is not enough; you must know how to connect with your staff, build relationships, and stick to your values while asking others to do the same.
9. Commit to your team’s growth
This can mean investing in professional learning for both administration and teachers. But getting to know teachers as individuals, through one-on-one meetings and by asking meaningful questions, is just as important. Just as each student is on their own learning journey, a servant leadership model also recognizes that each stakeholder in a school—from principal to teachers—is also constantly growing.
10. Build community
Building community does not mean you have to have big parties or after-school events. Building community can be simple things that continue to happen over time. Try building in 10 minutes at each of your faculty meetings for teachers to find someone they have not connected with and talk about anything but school, for example. Or start your interactions with staff with some chitchat about their lives and families before getting down to the business at hand.
By doing this you are sending a message, over and over again, that everyone on your staff matters and is important. That message helps you build community much more quickly than any one-time social gathering can.
A bold approach
Servant leaders share resources, focus on the personal growth of the individuals, and prioritize the betterment of the communities they lead. Servant leaders lead with empathy, even when energy levels are low, because servant leadership yields the greatest rewards.
When you work to get even better as a leader, you can make more meaningful and lasting change in your building. It is then that teachers are most able to fulfill your shared mission: serving students. And when you have the support and respect that come with servant leadership, the tasks before you will get easier to handle, too.