Developing servant leaders

Posted on April 19, 2018

As you have heard us say many times, the purpose of St Paul’s School is to develop “resilient global citizens, who are innovative thinkers, with a heart for servant leadership”. In this purpose statement you will find represented each of the core values of the School – Community, Learning and Faith.

I continue to search for new ways to describe each of the elements of our purpose statement and this week I’d like to discuss “servant leadership”. What does it mean exactly, and how do we teach it to the students at St Paul’s School? I would suggest that, like many virtues, servant leadership is “caught” rather than taught. Let me try to explain.

Immediately before the holidays we celebrated Easter. Specifically, on Maundy Thursday we remembered the occasion on which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, which the apostle John records this way (in chapter 13) –

12 After Jesus had washed their feet, he put his outer garment back on and returned to his place at the table. “Do you understand what I have just done to you?” he asked. 13 “You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. 14 I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet.

It is from this simple yet profound act that the concept of servant leadership has been derived. For, as Jesus explained in Mark 10 –

42  “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As a School, we literally obey Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet on special occasions such as the training and induction of student leaders. I had the privilege of washing the feet of one of our Captains at the beginning of the year, and the even greater privilege of having my feet washed by another of the Captains. It was a special occasion to me because it is such a rare and unusual thing to do in our culture. It felt almost sacramental. To literally practice servant leadership in a 21st-century Western society seems counter-cultural, almost subversive.

Of course, servant leadership does not have to be limited to the literal following of the example of Jesus, and that is what we hope the students at St Paul’s School will come to realise. The attitude of the heart is more important that the specific actions. Any fool can wash someone else’s feet. Indeed, I can even be proud of my own “humility”.

However, servant leaders are not puffed up with pride and self-importance. Servant leaders focus less on their own needs and more on the needs of those around them. Servant leaders have overcome (or, at least, put aside) their own legitimate needs and desires, and so are able to do the lowly tasks, without the need for recognition and praise.

I love the way in which John Ortberg expresses this great paradox – “When we truly notice another person, in that self-forgetfulness our own soul flourishes”[1]. May each of us learn to flourish this way.

Mr Nigel Grant
Acting Headmaster

[1] J. Ortberg – “The Me I Want To Be” (2009) – p 187

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