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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Dumont

Servant Leadership During Difficult Times

When I started my career as a teacher, I was blessed to work with an amazing principal. Mr. Larry Rankin was a legend; he was in the late stages of his career, he had so much experience, he was very wise in his approach to school leadership, and most importantly, he always put people first. He was very magnanimous, and he loved to use BIG words like salubrious! I learned so much from Larry over my first 6 years of teaching through his actions, because he led by example. I have modelled much of what I do as a principal based on what I witnessed first hand from Larry. One of those things Larry taught me as my first principal is described by Simon Sinek as servant "leaders eat last”.

Whenever our staff shared a meal, usually at the start or the end of the year, or on a PD Day, Larry would always make sure everyone was there - all teachers, all EAs, the office staff, librarian, our ESL coach, our custodians, absolutely everyone on staff! But Larry went beyond that; he invited our regular guests - our parish priest, our PAC Chair, the district painters who were at our school during that time, volunteer coaches, and other maintenance staff. Larry would make a serious effort to include everyone, because he knew that it was that entire team of people who help make our school successful. Because Larry had worked as a teacher in a number of communities, he knew that a school’s success isn’t about the socioeconomic background of the students, or the cultural groups to which they identified, and it wasn’t due to the newness of the school or the dominance the sports team. Larry believed that the success of any school is dependent on the quality of the staff and how that staff functions as a team. That was why he wanted everyone there for a meal, to ensure that our team was connected and to model to his staff what he expected of them in their roles - to serve others. At these staff gatherings, Larry would ensure new people were introduced, and that everyone was settled, eating and generally feeling welcomed. Larry was trying to ensure that everyone felt valued as key parts of his team, because Larry knew that the school would only be successful at educating the hearts and minds of our students, if we functioned as an amazing team. At those meals, Larry would eat last.

Simon Sinek book is titled “Leaders Eat Last” and in it he talks about the model of “servant leadership” as a way of developing a work culture of trust of cooperation. It is the leader who needs to show others that they are safe and supported. The leader needs to guide their staff and to nourish them when needed. When a staff recognizes their leader values them in this way, and they know that their leadership will do everything they can to help them be successful, the results can be powerful. In Simon’s 2014 TED Talk found here (, he discusses the approaches a company may take when facing an economic downturn. One company may choose to lay off staff, making cuts to avoid deficit budgets and bankruptcy. But a company whose leadership believes in its people, may ask all employees to take unpaid holidays to help save on salaries - and apply that policy to all staff, including upper management. This approach builds up staff morale as their leadership signals to all staff their value and their importance to the success of the company. As time passes, the first scenario would have staff who are paralyzed, most of whom underperform as the fear of job losses becomes debilitating and dominates inter-office conversations. Office politics would become a negative force as staff try to protect themselves from being undervalued as compared to a colleague - distrust and protectionism rule the day. The second company excels; the messaging from leadership is that we need all hands on deck to make it, and we need everyone performing at their very best. In this company, teamwork and cooperation ensure that not only are they successful at surviving the economic downturn, they end up on top at the end of it. To me, this is a leadership basic - leaders must so everything they can to ensure the safety of the members in their team. If a leader is able to ensure their staff know their leader will protect and support them, their team will much more likely to achieve great things because they won’t hesitate to make sacrifices for the betterment of their organization. In addition, they will also protect their leader. This becomes a relationship of compassion and sacrifice which is integral to our human need for safety, belonging and love.

As I think about this type of leadership, I believe that servant leaders have the greatest outcomes for their organizations over the long term. This is a belief validated by Simon Sinek and his research. But when I think about leadership in times of crisis, I believe servant leadership is even more important to help an organization get through difficult times - and not only survive, but thrive.

In a school where the leadership has developed an environment of high levels of trust and safety among their staff, their resiliency to stressors will be very high. This would allow a school, for example, to work together to get ready to teach students online in less than a week during a pandemic that has closed schools indefinitely. It is this type of environment that Larry developed in our school, and it was certainly how I felt as a teacher on his staff. I knew we would all be willing to sacrifice and do our best when faced with challenging times. I hope that is how my staff feels, especially now as we are faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

School staff volunteering at OLPH Parish to prepare meals for those less fortunate.

It is this lesson that has me worried about Alberta. During this uncertain time, we need our government leadership to show how much they value their provincial staff and to build a culture of trust. This can be done with very high levels of communication, but also needs to be reflected in the decisions and action of the government as well. After the announcement on Saturday that all Alberta school boards will have to lay off staff for the final months of the year, it reminded me of how great leadership would handle this uncertain time. I feel like sharing this devastating news on Twitter on a Saturday during spring break may not helped build trust among educators, students and parents with the GOA. All that being said, I know our government leaders have to make some difficult decisions and that being in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic cannot be easy. But I do know one thing!! I believe that many of the staff who are laid off by their districts due to funding cuts by the provincial government will attempt to volunteer anyway, to help their school and their students make though this challenging time. Some of these staff will make this sacrifice because they work in schools where the culture is one of service, and that they believe in the teams they are part of and know the impact they have on students. I know this will happen because some of my staff have already told me that if they lose their job, they would like to still serve their students. This is because our staff are servant leaders - they are in this for the students they work with and the staff teams they are part of. They are ready to eat last to serve those in their care, because they know how important they are to the education of our students. This is true in the health care industry, as our hospital staff, and doctors and nurses who put themselves in harms way to serve those who are sick. Health care is full of servant leaders too!

I pray that the Government of Alberta does everything it can to get us through this crisis together, and makes decisions to protect all Albertans, as well our students, and the staff who serve them. I pray that we make decisions that will create a province that will pull through this united and stronger than we were before, but that will only happen if we can do this together, as a team. Now more than ever, we need servant leaders. Now more than ever, we need to put people first.

by Joe Dumont Twitter @principaldumont

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