Recently a colleague sent me a newsletter from a school in Johannesburg in which they addressed the issue of leadership in schools. The newsletter was very interesting, the content in great part addressing the belief that Leadership Platform has always upheld that the family is the first “school of leadership” and that if we fail to teach it effectively there, that school becomes the area in which leadership principles and philosophies are inculcated.
We give credit to this school for the way in which they are addressing leadership and the models they use in their school and include an article from their newsletter in ours – an article that addresses issues like entitlement, status versus service, inclusive leadership and more.
“Education for a new world” written by Judith Ancer
A shiny prefect’s badge has little to do with vital leadership skills
TRUE story: the phone in the principal’s office was ringing even before the school had finished filing out of the hall. A student who, minutes before, had not been chosen as a prefect had already sent a cell phone message to her mother, who was already demanding to know why her child had not been selected.
These are the times we live in. People feel entitled to and validated by a shiny badge, or a strip of gold on the edge of their blazers.
Call it what you like – prefect, councilor or student representative – as long as the focus of student leadership is on status, not service, we and our children will buy into the wrong idea of leadership.
My husband, who is a teacher, conducts his professional life by this philosophy: the purpose of school is not school; the purpose of school is life after school. In other words, schools overly focused on their own reputation, the number of matric distinctions, the first rugby team’s performance against arch rivals, the ornateness of their buildings, the billiard-like smoothness of their AstroTurf, the hallowed status of their elite student leaders, miss the point.
Particularly in the area of leadership, a school’s job is to focus on the futures that await its students and educate accordingly. In so doing, a school’s reputation will in any case be enhanced.
Here is the future: goodbye lifelong employment, old boy networks, financial certainty and a world revolving happily on its axis while nature offers up its bounty. Hello uncertainty, rapid technological change and environmental crisis.
In our childhood we didn’t bother about the possibility of global warming or the depletion of energy resources, but we leave these enormous challenges for our children. Most of us grew up in more homogenous groups; now we meet cultural difference everywhere.
The future demands a new kind of leader. Firstly, all children, not just a few, will need to forge their own paths and be more self-reliant. While only a minority of children have confident, charismatic personalities, all children must learn, within their personality types, to be heard and to make brave choices.
But confidence is not enough. We’ve had enough of leaders whose goal is shiny badges and single malt whiskies, who defer their doubts and see short-term gain when multinational corporations come asking if they can frack our land. The world also needs leaders who can connect with others, who can consult and collaborate, who are brave enough to look the future in the eye and serve the best long-term interests of society even when short-term pain is the price.
I’m not naive about this. Young children are natural egotists and this is normal and necessary to survive in a big people’s world. They are easily motivated by merits, star charts and sweets. When they win a medal in the 60m dash, they don’t think much about the losers. When they are chosen as class captains, they don’t imagine how they can consult their peers. The problem develops when children grow up and, fed a diet of praise and excuses pursue leadership for status.
Over time children are able to learn that leadership can be ethical and democratic. Such a servant model of leadership has been well established since the 1970s, based on Robert K Greenleaf’s work, The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf rejects the hierarchical model of leadership and seeks a democratic, inclusive model. Of course one can debate this and hold on to the idea that leadership is innate, that the strong lead and the rest “should go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions”, to quote Robin Williams. It’s just that I prefer to send my children to a school which is prepared to see my child, whatever his personality, as a potential leader; is committed to giving him responsibilities and letting him make mistakes; and expects him to use his leadership to partner up with others.
In the long term, choose your school wisely and pressure your child’s school to develop a genuinely inclusive model of leadership. In the short term, look at your own practices in the home.
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