Servant Leadership

The Org Chart

If you have ever worked for someone, and most of us have, you are likely familiar with the concept of an “organizational chart.”  It defines who reports to whom.  I could write an entire blog about how important it is for an organization to define who is taking responsibility for what.  Clearly defined goals and objectives, concrete action steps, and accountability are essential for success.  An idea is just an idea unless someone takes ownership for making it happen.

Assuming a leadership role, climbing higher on the org chart, is exhilarating.  You may have a stronger voice in decisions.  You may have more autonomy.

One thing I have learned over the years though from leaders I admire most is how narrow in scope the organizational chart really is.  It is about accountability and supervision.  It is about departmentalization and line of succession.  It is not in any way, shape or form about kindness or respect or doing what needs to be done in the moment.

The best leaders at every level are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work.  Principals are wiping off cafeteria tables at lunch and sweeping the floor between basketball games.  Servant leadership is a term thrown around frequently today.  True servant leaders are the ones who embrace every opportunity to serve the organization and the people within it.  Do you walk by the paper on the floor in the hallway?  Is picking it up someone else’s job?

The best leaders are kind and caring and respectful to everyone in the organization at every level.  They know the CEO’s name, and they know the name of every person on the custodial night crew.  Character is defined by what you do for and how you treat people who can do nothing to advance your career.  Do you truly demonstrate respect for everyone?

Leading is hard work, and the higher you are on the org chart, the more you have to be willing to accept responsibility.

But the organizational chart has nothing to do with how you treat people or how others treat you.  The best leaders understand that!

Houston, We Have a Problem

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Don’t worry, this is not a post about problems.  We have enough discourse right now about problems.  This is a post about solutions.  As I was re-watching the movie Apollo 13 this week, I was reminded of one of the most important rules in life.

We are never in this alone.

It would be so easy to see the heroes of the Apollo 13 mission as Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise.  And of course they are heroes.  They accomplished what few people before or after have ever done.  They braved a new world at great personal risk.  And when things went wrong, as they so often do in life, they stayed level-headed, they relied on their training, and they used their knowledge, skills, and experience to make it home safely.  But they did not do it alone.

Gene Kranz was the Lead Flight Director.  His job was to coordinate the efforts from the ground.  Countless men and women worked around the clock to find the right answers, the best solutions, to problems no one had ever encountered before. Their efforts were no less heroic than those of the men in the capsule.

While there was no doubt some poetic license taken in the retelling of the story, Ken Mattingly, who was replaced on the mission for medical reasons just days before the launch, also worked the problem from the ground.  His efforts were no less heroic than those of the men in the capsule.

And there was Marilyn Lovell, Jim’s wife, and the family, friends, and co-workers of the crew.  So many people who were either working to find solutions or working to support those most directly involved in the crisis.

We are never in this alone.  This is true in space travel, in education, in life.

Our teachers work day after day to find the best solutions for the children in our schools. They are heroic.  They design engaging lessons.  They work hard to be sure there is a solid objective for the lesson and appropriate instructional strategies.  They use data and research-based ideas.  But more, they get to know their students on a personal level.  They connect with children and parents to build a safe space for learning.  And when things go wrong, when a lesson doesn’t work or technology is glitchy (yes, thats the technical term) or when a student is hungry, they find solutions.  They stay level-headed, they rely on their training, and they use their knowledge, skills, and experience to solve the problem.  And they do not do it alone.

There are paraprofessionals alongside them in class.  There are secretaries and food service workers and custodians supporting the building.  There are administrators working systematically to design the best schools and to connect with students and parents daily.

And then there’s us.  Those of us who no longer work in a building with students.  I have to admit, it is a weird feeling.  We all got into this to help students.  We all got into this to make a difference for a child.  As I watched Apollo 13, I found myself affirmed in the idea that the work of those of us on the ground crew, those of us not in the classroom every day, is still serving children.  Our work is still focused on meeting the needs of the students, the parents, the teachers, the schools.

And we are not alone in this either. Our school boards, our legislators, our judicial system are all hard at work to meet the needs of the people.  Everyone got into this to make a difference.

I guess I am just saying that you matter!  Whether you are the one in the capsule, the one on the stage, the one in the spotlight, or the one whose name is unknown doing quiet, important work behind the scenes.  None of us are in this alone.  And we all matter!

Rusty

img_2558I spent a few days in Huntington, West Virginia this month.  It sits on the southern bank of the Ohio River, minutes from both Kentucky and Ohio.  Although we flew in on the edge of a hurricane, it was the perfect time of year to visit this beautiful part of our country.  The city is nestled inside lush hills, and the leaves had all turned gold and burgundy and burnt orange.  Picturesque is the only accurate description.

The highlight of the trip was a complete surprise.  It was one of those magical moments that seem almost too good to be true.  We met a man who left an impression.  His name is Rusty.

We had a little time to walk over to Marshall University.  You can’t visit Huntington and not visit the Marshall University stadium.  The Thundering Herd suffered a tragedy in 1970 memorialized in the movie We Are Marshall.  The school has done a remarkable job of honoring the past and celebrating the future.  The stadium was closed, but Rusty was cleaning the parking lot.  We asked him if he would take our picture.  Almost immediately he started sharing stories about Marshall.  Rusty has worked there for 50 years.  He grew up in a house that sat where the Marshall practice field sits now.  Rusty has some stories.

img_2569He took us up to the private boxes for a tour.  He showed us the press box.  He shared stories of Huntington community members and the history of the school.  It was riveting.

img_2589But Rusty shared more than the story of Marshall.  He shared his thoughts on life.  He shared his wisdom.  He told us that if he were rich (and after spending time with him- trust me that he is rich in all the ways that matter), he would give $25,000 to a young couple.  “Can you imagine how much it would have helped to have someone get you started when you were young?”   He also shared that he would sit down with the couple and their parents to make sure they had a good life plan.  When Rusty imagines being rich, his thoughts do not go to what he could do for himself, but what he could do for others.  And he recognizes that what we all really need is just a little help.  “Imagine if everyone could just help one other person.”

Imagine.

Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one.”

I watched one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing this weekend.  Two West Wing staffers met a man in a bar who was taking his daughter on a college visit.  He was talking about how hard it can be to provide for your family.  “It should be hard.  I like that it’s hard.  Putting your daughter through college, that’s a man’s job, a man’s accomplishment.  But it should be a little easier, just a little easier.  And that difference…is everything.”

As I watched it, I thought about Rusty. And I realized that we already have the capacity to make it a little easier. Imagine if everyone would help make one person’s life better, one situation a little easier.  One person at a time we would make the difference for everyone.

Hugs, Hive Fives, and Hope

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There is no greater purpose than to make life better for someone else. Time spent in service to others is time well spent.  In education we are blessed with the opportunity to do this every day.  It is the greatest job in the world!

I had one of those moments recently that all educators have.  I saw a former student and was reminded of the impact that we have on the young people in our care.  In a brief encounter, she hugged me no less than five times.  Our connection is deep.  Middle school was not an easy time in her life.  She struggled with behavior; she wrestled with friendship issues; and she lost a parent.  We spent countless hours together in my office working through issues.

We all have those stories.  It’s a natural consequence of our profession.  But we could all have more of those stories if we were more intentional about our interactions with each other.

Life can be hard.  Growing up is not easy.  The day to day work of making friends, doing schoolwork, finding a seat in the cafeteria or on the bus, it’s hard.  Then throw in making or not making the team or the cast or the choir.  And some of our students are dealing with so much more, issues that no one should have to experience, poverty, illness, death.

But we have the daily opportunity to help make life better for them.  What makes the difference?  A person makes the difference.  You make the difference.

As a teacher, get to know the children in your class.

As an administrator, get to know them too.

I truly believe that while all of our students are unique, they also all share a few similar needs.

Everyone wants to be known, to be seen and appreciated for who they really are.

I call it sparkle.  Our students each have a sparkle.  You can see it in their eyes when they talk about their passion.  You can see it in their work when they are doing what they love most.  Do you see it when they sparkle?

And they want to be encouraged.  Something as simple as a hug or a high five can make the difference in someone’s day.

As we start another week, look for opportunities to find the sparkle in your students.  Know them. Encourage them.  Care about them.  You could be the hope they need to make their day, their life, a little better.

 

Show Up

I woke up yesterday with a terrible headache…so bad it would be more accurate to say that the headache woke me up several times.  But it was a big day for my daughter.  She had been working with a committee all year to organize the volunteers for a large autism society fundraiser, and the event was yesterday.  It was important to her that we were there.  I took some medication, ate breakfast, rested for a bit, then got up and got ready.

When we left the event, I had a beautiful email waiting from a friend and colleague.  She has recently suffered a loss, and she was thanking some people for being there to offer support.

The morning was a powerful reminder of something I learned long ago and was just discussing with a friend.  At times the most important thing we do is show up.

Gallup research explains that engagement improves when someone at work “seems to care about me as a person”.  Our lives are important.  Our celebrations, our losses, and our big moments matter.  When the people with whom we work ask about our children and grandchildren, wish us good luck on the graduation party we are hosting, or offer a hug after a hard loss, we connect.  It increases that sense of belonging.

Attending the visitation or funeral of a loved one is a concrete example of showing up.

Attending someone’s retirement reception is another.

Pay attention to what people share.  The big events are not usually a secret.  Ask people what they are doing over the weekend. And really listen.  When someone extends an invitation, go.

I have a good friend at work who has made these events a priority.  She speaks beautifully of the impact others made on her when she lost her father.  Not only does she show up, she reaches out and invites me along.  I have learned so much from what she has modeled.

Now, I would never suggest that you attend events when you are sick, and I am not promoting the guilt that comes with having to miss one of these events because your schedule does not permit it.  Real life requires balance.  There are things we miss because one person can only be one place at a time.  There are things we miss because sometimes no matter how hard you try, you cannot fit one more thing into your day.  And of course there are things we miss because the healthier option (either physically or mentally) is to rest.

I am simply suggesting that there times when what people need most is for us to just show up!

Serve

SERVE

Image Source: Serve by elycefeliz CCBY

Today I had someone share with me that last week was “tough in the trenches”. 

In the trenches?

I understood the expression.  I knew what he meant, but once again it felt like us versus them.  “Us” are in the trenches.  “Them” are safe somewhere else doing things to us.

I am troubled by the analogy.  Trench warfare is about digging in and holding your ground.  Leadership is about getting out of the trench, facing the challenge, and moving forward.  Let’s get out of the metaphorical trench.

As a classroom teacher, I know that I felt like I was on the frontline or whatever other military reference I might have constructed to explain that I was the one in the room with the students.  And I was right.   But as an assistant principal, I was also on the frontline with students and with parents and with teachers in any number of very difficult situations.  Then as a principal, I was the public face for every news story, radio show, and Facebook post when someone disagreed with a decision.  And I was the private voice for every difficult final decision at the building level.

I’ve had an opportunity to reflect this week on what it means to be a servant leader.  What does it mean to serve?

I’m going to suggest something that might be unpopular.  I’m going to suggest that servant leadership is about putting needs of the organization above yourself.  This is not easy because it can sometimes mean making a change or taking on a challenge not of your own choosing.  

This is the time of year when principals are having conversations about teachers moving grade levels or changing teams or courses.  There is something so comforting about starting a new year in a familiar classroom with familiar teammates and a familiar curriculum.  Making a significant change is hard.  But every year in almost every school at least some people are asked to try something new.  While there are some people who love change, most people find it uncomfortable.

It’s hard, but change can be rejuvenating.  Developing new skills, cultivating new relationships, and establishing new routines can breathe new life into your work.  And sometimes, it’s what’s best for the organization.

I’ve learned the power of servant leadership from my colleagues over the years.  As a classroom teacher, I was always inspired by the people who tried new grade levels or new subjects when asked.  I’ve learned from administrators who’ve changed buildings or positions.  And I’ve learned from those who led the sometimes very difficult conversations about organizational change.

Servant leadership is about putting the needs of others and of the organization in front of your own needs.

“When people ask me what they should do to lead, I say lead where you are.  Influence the people around you.  Start there.  Love.  Serve.  Care.”  Jon Gordon