Are You a Servant Leader?

John Cassel and Tim Holt

Why do some citizens seek election to their school boards? As state association trainers, we’ve heard hundreds of board members tell us candidly and thoughtfully their reasons for why they run. They want to give back to their communities, to help preserve good schools, to support public education, and to participate in this local expression of American democracy.

Author and businessman Robert Greenleaf believed that the desire to serve is innate in most people. Servant leadership is a phrase he coined in 1970. This concept provides a powerful and profound way to talk about the governance role of school boards and the limited but key role of its members. Greenleaf’s seminal ideas have spawned a whole community of thought and substantial literature, including Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and John Carver’s Boards That Make A Difference.

School board members are almost always servant leaders in a literal sense: In the vast majority of states, school board members do not get compensated. Some form of service motivates members to give 10 to 20 hours a month, without compensation, for board meetings and other district and community involvement.

While we all know that there are many rewards for service -- for example, the perception of power or the opportunity to advocate for a particular interest -- mature and thoughtful board members always have offered leadership that is not about individuals, but about the common good -- the community, its children, and its future. 

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