Over and over I hear leaders speak of the importance of servant leadership. But what does that really mean? And do we truly value the leadership of those not in the spotlight?
There’s a story about this in the Aaron Sorkin show Sports Night. “You guys know who Philo Farnsworth was? He invented television. I don’t mean he invented television like Uncle Milty. I mean he invented THE television in a little house in Provo, Utah, at a time when the idea of transmitting moving pictures through the air would be like me saying I figured out a way to beam us aboard the starship Enterprise. He was a visionary. He died broke and without fanfare. The guy I really like though was his brother-in-law, Cliff Gardner. He said, ‘Philo, I know everyone thinks you’re crazy, but I want to be a part of this. I don’t have your head for science, so I’m not going to be able to help much with the design and mechanics of the invention, but it sounds like you’re going to need glass tubes.’ You see, Philo was inventing the cathode receptor, and even though Cliff didn’t know what that meant or how it worked, he’d seen Philo’s drawing, and he knew that he was gonna need glass tubes. And since television hadn’t been invented yet, it’s not like you could get them at the local TV repair shop. ‘I want to be a part of this,’ Cliff said. ‘I don’t have your head for science. How would it be if I were to teach myself to be a glass blower? And I could set up a little shop in the backyard. And I could make all the tubes you’ll need for testing.’ There ought to be Congressional Medals for people like that.”
When I became an assistant principal, my principal told me that “if someone else can do it, someone else should do it.” He recognized that my time was better spent on the tasks that no one else could do. He insisted, in fact, that I work collaboratively to craft the vision of my projects, oversee the design of the process, and then let others carry out what I was not explicitly required to do myself. He helped me see that time is finite and that I should be spending my time on the things that no one else could do. He did the same.
In Multipliers Liz Wiseman describes the Challenger. The leader who lays out a just-beyond-reach challenge for others and then provides the motivation, but not the specific details, to execute. Others become better than they knew they could be by reaching the challenge themselves.
Many times that meant that I was doing the legwork on projects that our principal had envisioned. It also meant that others in our building were doing the legwork on mine. To me, that is servant leadership. It is doing your work in service to others. Often times our teachers were leading in service to my ideas. I was leading in service to our principal’s ideas. And he was leading in service to the mission of the District.
At the District level now, I see this so clearly. There are an incredible number of secretaries, teachers, para-professionals, technology specialists, building leaders, and district leaders implementing our Strategic Plan. They do the work to build a better and more effective way of teaching and learning. They do the work to ensure the necessary supports are in place to help all students achieve. They do the work to make life better for children. They are in service to others through their leadership.
Leadership like this is not always recognized. It is not flashy. But it is necessary, and it should be celebrated.
Like Philo Farnsworth, the best leaders are skilled at both the vision and the implementation of innovative ideas, but the best leaders also understand that their time may be better spent on the big picture than on the details.