Servant leadership and falling into a river

I would like to share an autobiographical metaphor with you.

From 2004 to 2011 I was Principal of Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong.  The United World Colleges are arguably the gold standard of altruistic international education.  Originally a product of the Cold War imperative to bring together young people from both sides of the Iron Curtain to build a global future of peace and sustainability, the UWC movement has now expanded to a network of 18 schools and colleges, plus more than 150 national committees.

One of the distinctive features of the UWC in Hong Kong while I was Principal was that in November each year we would suspend classes for “China Week”, a time in which all our IB1 (Year 11) students travelled into Mainland China in small groups under the care of a teacher to perform service work or personal challenge activities.  As Principal I accompanied one of the groups of students every year as the leader of two projects – building toilets and renovating homes in a village of leprosy sufferers in Yunnan province, and helping with the construction of basic medical clinics in poor, remote rural areas of Guizhou province.

In order to initiate the medical clinics project in Guizhou, I travelled to Guizhou in March 2008 with the Chair of my Board and representatives of our partner organisation, the Amity Foundation, visiting several of the villages that lacked adequate medical services.

One of these villages was named Gubin, which is in the Xingshan district of Majiang County.

The start of my visit to Gubin was not auspicious.  To enter the settlement of Gubin, we had to cross a creek using an improvised bridge that comprised just two metal pipes, which were very slippery in the rainy conditions on the day.  Despite the intimidating view of rushing water beneath me, and in defiance of the old, smooth-soled shoes I was wearing that day, I started to make my way gingerly across the bridge.

To my surprise, I almost managed to reach the far side of the bridge when Gubin’s paramedic who was standing at the far end of the bridge decided to reach out to me and offer a polite helping hand.  Unfortunately, this meant that as she grabbed my hand we both lost balance and slipped over the edge, the paramedic falling into the river and me falling half in the river and half on the muddy bank.  Apparently this was the most exciting event that had occurred in Gubin for several decades, and so our fall caused quite a commotion among the local people who immediately rushed to our aid.

Gubin village, Majiang County, Guizhou province, China
Gubin village, Majiang County, Guizhou province, China
Gubin village, Majiang County, Guizhou province, China
Gubin village, Majiang County, Guizhou province, China

The concerned residents of Gubin accompanied the paramedic and me up the hill to the very basic old building that served as the village’s current clinic.  The local residents were extraordinarily gracious, even to the point of insisting that I accept a dry pair of socks.

My visit to Gubin’s clinic was therefore spent huddled over a bowl of hot coals, trying to dry my shoes and muddy clothes while at the same time listening to the paramedic’s stories about health care in the village.  Like the other clinics I had already visited in Guizhou, the level of equipment was extremely basic, including an old twisted wire coat hanger on the ceiling to hold the intravenous drips.

Medical clinic, Gubin village, Majiang County, Guizhou province, China

Yes, there is a point to this anecdote regarding school leadership and the relationship between boards and principals.  My point is this: effective leadership serves the needs of others – it is “authentic servant leadership”.

When I was sitting in the Gubin medical clinic trying to warm up and dry out, my Board Chair obtained a dish of warm water, knelt down, and proceeded to wash the mud from my feet.  It was a simple gesture reminiscent of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17), and its symbolism had a profound impact upon me.  

Washing feet, Gubin village, Majiang County, Guizhou Province, China

It is said that servant leadership is a highly effective approach for promoting individual, team and organisational performance as it shifts the focus of people’s concern from themselves towards a concern for others, towards serving a mission that is far greater than any individual’s ego, thus creating a culture of service.

What is servant leadership?  According to Sendjaya servant leadership comprises six dimensions that can be applied on a daily basis:

Dimension 1 – Serving followers – assist others without expecting acknowledgement from higher up.

Dimension 2 – Being authentic - act with integrity, be accountable for past actions, and admit mistakes and limitations where required.

Dimension 3 – Building deep relationships - Constantly listen to others’ opinions, do not take sides or play favourites, and be genuinely interested in people.

Dimension 4 – Acting ethically – openly discuss ethical ambiguities, always choose to do the right thing rather than just trying to look good in front of others.

Dimension 5 – Creating meaning and purpose – clarify a sense of meaning and purpose that arises from daily routines, help others to connect their work to the bigger picture.

Dimension 6 – Be a mentor to others to help them through professional and personal issues, empowering them to make decisions, take risks, and so on

The topic of servant leadership is a huge one that extends far beyond this simple article, but it is a critically important area of understanding for members of school boards and leadership teams.

Servant leadership encompasses nurturing, defending, guiding and empowering followers.  Servant leaders are concerned for the needs of their followers; they seek to build up their well-being together with the well-being of the school as whole.  A servant leader empowers followers rather than dominating them.  A servant leader will have a natural inclination to serve marginalised rather than powerful people.  A servant leader is a humble role model who leads others by their own example.

Quoting his own and others’ research, Fogarty’s doctoral dissertation (2013) found that servant leadership is significantly positively related to intrinsic motivation, trust, and value congruence among the members of an organisation.  This suggests strongly that that (a) leader selection criteria should incorporate evidence of effective demonstration of servant leadership behaviours; (b) leader training should incorporate instruction on and guidance in servant leadership behaviours; (c) leadership strategies should incorporate the goal of building volunteer intrinsic motivation; and (d) school boards and leaders should receive regular professional development input to enhance the quality of their own servant leadership. 

I can’t remember anything during my fall from the bridge into the creek in Gubin – the fall from the bridge down to the muddy river bank remains a complete blank in my memory bank.  However, I vividly remember the care shown for me by the residents of Gubin as well as the humble comfort of the servant leadership shown to me by my Board Chair.  For me, this remains a compelling metaphor to illustrate the enduring power and supremacy of servant leadership over the challenges and perils that face school leaders routinely on a daily (or sometimes an hourly?) basis.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Eva N, Robin M, Sendjaya S, van Dierendonck D and Liden RC (2019) Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(1): 111-132.

Fogarty S (2013) The Impact of Senior Pastor Leadership Behaviours on Volunteer Motivation (Doctoral dissertation, Regent University).

Sendjaya S, Eva N, Butar IB, Robin M and Castles S (2017) SLBS-6: Validation of a Short Form of the Servant Leadership Behavior Scale.  Journal of Business Ethics, 156: 941-956.

We offer a range of workshops that address many matters relating to leadership, including OSG-S3 Future-focussed board leadership, and we support school leaders through our critical friendship and mentoring services.

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