Booker T. Washington, historical African American activist and education pioneer, said, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” Those words echo the soul of someone who knew that their success was directly connected to the upliftment and success of others. Beginning the 2020–21 school year, I recommitted myself to becoming even more of a servant leader with a goal of demonstrating a strong sense of compassion and understanding to support teachers and other staff members so they could be strong for our students and families.

Defining Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf is regarded as the first to coin the phrase “servant leadership” in 1970. The basis of his thesis is that servant leadership requires someone who is not interested in wielding power—servant leaders put others’ interests before their own. A servant leader, above all, is empathetic and works with a sense of moral authority.

The theory around servant leadership has become highly embedded within the business world—somewhere we don’t always associate with empathy and downplaying ego., a career search website, outlines the following nine characteristics of servant leadership:

  1. Listening: When people want to speak to you, take the time to really allow them to share, sometimes without offering a solution. “Listen to hear, not to respond.”
  2. Empathy: Know your staff and each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Use those strengths to help the school move forward. Target areas of weakness with respectful coaching that includes goals and their own perspective on how to improve the weakness.
  3. Healing: Encourage a work/life balance for everyone. Boundaries are good.
  4. Awareness: Know who you are and know who you have on your team. Put the right people in the right place so they can shine.
  5. Persuasion: Incorporate shared decision making. Handing down orders doesn’t exactly bring a sense of belonging and ownership.
  6. Conceptualization: Keep the school’s vision at the forefront; don’t get caught up in the daily drama, requests, and added initiatives.
  7. Foresight: It is important to understand what has happened in your school in the past. What was effective? Ineffective? Apply what you learn from those lessons.
  8. Stewardship: Lead by example. Don’t tell anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.
  9. Commitment to people’s growth and building a community from your organization’s efforts: Show your staff that you believe in them and their personal and professional growth and development. Engage them in opportunities that help them grow in their own leadership abilities.

In the education world, school leaders can adopt these tenets to shift their leadership style, especially during unrest and confusion. As principals, our jobs are about people, purpose, and helping others see the possibilities that exist.

A People Business

I often say to my staff that we’re in a “people business.” As school administrators, we are responsible for the safety of everyone in our buildings—an extension of physical safety is social-emotional safety. When relating this concept to the “people” principles of servant leadership, I most liken listening, having empathy, and promoting healing as the subthemes.

Listen when people come into your office or when a teacher or staff member invites you to be a part of what they are doing. My staff knows they can ask for my attention by sticking their head in my office. They also know that if the door is closed, then I am engaged in something else that needs my full attention. This openness to listening helps me with building my own sense of empathy. I learn so much about my teachers and other staff members, from what makes them feel competent to what makes them feel confused and unsure. Then, how can I use that information to help and support? It is only through having empathy that I can honestly know what and when people need to experience healing. Moreover, my teachers believe me when I tell them to set boundaries and to be selfish with their self-care time, especially during virtual learning when everyone—from the district level, to school administrators, to students and their parents—has 24-hour-a-day access to them through email.

Purpose Driven

We measure success by students’ overall growth and development, a concept that comes down to school vision. That vision should determine priorities for the work that we do in our schools. Regardless of the pitfalls and daily issues that arise, the vision keeps us on course. Each of our faculty meetings opens with engagement activities around the content and intent of our school vision. When people present instructional concerns or want to vent, I remind them to focus on what needs to be done based on our vision.

Awareness allows me to know how and where people will function best and feel most successful as I work to lead us toward our vision. Perhaps, through listening, you will find out what else your staff might see themselves doing for the school in the future. Don’t take power away from a valued member of your school team without a conversation, however. If you need to make any substantial changes, use persuasion. People feel more empowered when a consensus can be built, and this empowerment leads to ownership. When folks feel like they own an idea, they can take that message out to persuade others to get on board.

Oh, the Possibilities

The principle of foresight suggests that a servant leader has to temper their leadership in strategy. The servant leader learns from the history of the school. Did a certain incentive or practice have a negative impact? What practices did families feel made them more connected to the school? Who do I go to for good information? Knowing all of this background and data can help you build a better future for your school, better engagement with families, fewer disparate outcomes for certain groups of students, and better morale for teachers and other staff.

Leading by example, being fair, being ethical—these traits are embedded in our principal standards. Basically, I model stewardship. My motto is, “My position or title does not exempt me from doing whatever the work is that needs to be done.” Sometimes that means I may walk with students. It may mean I cover so someone can take their lunch break. It means I help in the cafeteria to clean up a mess. It means I model appropriate questions and responses during a class that I’m observing. It means that, as the servant leader, I lead by doing what needs to be done to move us toward success.

Finally, commitment to the growth of people and building a community is where you support and empower people to become who they want to become in your school and even beyond your school. Explicitly give praise when people do a good job. Another way that I love to help people grow is to identify staff members for leadership positions. This could be identifying committee chairpersons or talking to a teacher about pursuing a degree in school counseling, educational technology, or even administration. I also support those already in the leadership pipeline. If you have a strong instructional coach in your school, provide them opportunities to plan activities and lead the full staff. Share your triumphs and your challenges with your assistant principals so they can learn and be reflective in their own daily practices. This will help them become better for your leadership team and school overall. Empower people to be their best selves.

Above all, help establish the purpose of the school’s daily work and present possibilities for growth beyond what individuals may see in themselves.

Yolanda Holloway, PhD, is the principal of Colonel Richardson Middle School in Federalsburg, MD.