Serve to lead: in the face of uncertainty

Gus Lock, headmaster at The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, asks whether the idea of ‘serving to lead’ could help to support young people during times of uncertainty

Recent months have reinforced the importance of community, courage and compassion. More than ever, during these difficult times, schools have a duty to educate the young to live well with aspiration, tolerance and wisdom.

We have learned to consider and appreciate what truly matters in our lives, and have often learned to see what is right in front of us in a different light. This can be both enlightening and inspiring. Yet, what has also come out of this time is a tangible spirit of community.

One of the ways we look to encourage philanthropy and kindness within our own school community is by reflecting on the mantra of serving others, which stems from our own historic values, going back to the school’s heritage and traditional roots, the generous gift made by our founder.

Although, at this point, I really should offer a confession. The truth is, I suffer from motto envy. At first sight, our school’s motto ranks among the least inspiring or energising I have ever seen. Unlike many of the splendid examples to be found in other schools, the directive to ‘Serve and Obey’ seems to lack challenge or aspiration.

It reeks of a subservience and blind obedience, speaking to outmoded, historic educational ideals, when schooling was mostly about learning to repeat what was taught. It sits in stark contrast to the notions of independence, of thought and judgment that lies at the heart of enlightened and modern education.

New perspectives

The values surrounding ‘serve and obey’ date back many years and would have likely been interpreted as ‘Serve God and Obey the Ten Commandments’ (in essence, lead a good life). This, too, feels outdated and does not reflect our diverse 21st-century community. However, over recent years I have learned to understand the value of these words from a different perspective. After the Second World War, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst adopted the motto, ‘Serve to Lead’.

This is, of course, a paradox; it feels like the old adage that ‘to swim you need to be able to sink’ – but, as is explained in the preface to the anthology with which every cadet is issued, ‘it is a paradox which must be understood by every officer cadet’, because this principle both drives great leadership and speaks to a higher purpose.

In focusing his efforts on the greatest challenge of our age, we see in David Attenborough, for example, the sort of authentic commitment to others that defines servant leadership and does so much more to enthuse and inspire us all

The question is, could the idea of ‘serving to lead’ actually help to support young people during times of uncertainty and bring hope and positivity to others? During lockdown, outside of remote teaching, our design and technology team, and other members of staff, worked tirelessly to make and distribute thousands of face-visors. Hosts of pupils also made PPE from home and cooked up meals for NHS staff or volunteered for local charities. It gave them purpose, pleasure and pride.

After a few weeks we were awash with messages of thanks from alumni and parents, GP surgeries and hospitals. It was a stark reminder of just how many of our parents and alumni were working on the front line, serving others at real risk to themselves. And, strangely, one legacy of the Covid-19 crisis will be an increase, one might say against all logic, in the numbers of young people seeking a career in medicine, for the imperative to serve, is one that resonates so strongly.

True colours

In contrast with most traditional models of leadership, which are more distant or transactional, or rely on the notion of an inspirational guru, someone who is somehow better than the rest of us, serving others promotes empathy and a sense of connection to others. It is about working with, relying on, supporting and taking support from other people. We can be seduced into imagining that great leaders are great people, superhuman individuals.

In the real world, though, no leader works alone – they are part of a team, part of a greater whole. Anyone who works alone is, by definition, not a leader, because they are not leading anyone.

Community leaders have always known this: the Bible is full of references to servant leadership; Gandhi explained that, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” This is what great teachers and school leaders strive to do every day and is an example that we hope that young people will follow.

In recent months, as a nation we have had the opportunity to witness a variety of approaches to leadership. The Covid-19 crisis, the reaction to the death of George Floyd and the US Presidential race have all showcased world leaders acting under pressure, and it is under this pressure that we witness true colours most vividly.

Sadly, we have seen some spectacular examples of what not to do: ego-centric leadership that serves only oneself; bureaucratic leadership which takes refuge in systems and processes; and outright hypocrisy which undermines any faith and trust. In so doing, they do nothing to shape the positive role models that our students so desperately need. By contrast, perhaps, in focusing his efforts on the greatest challenge of our age, we see in David Attenborough, for example, the sort of authentic commitment to others that defines servant leadership and does so much more to enthuse and inspire us all.

The world has changed a great deal since our school first adopted its motto and it is arguably more uncertain and more complex than ever. But, on reflection, like many other good schools, ours was founded alongside a vision to inspire young people to go out and make a contribution to society – to serve others and obey their conscience. Perhaps the truth is, it is that exhortation which still resonates as powerfully and as relevant as ever today.


W: The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School

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1 Comment
  • Sir Reginald McFlurry

    Having commissioned through Sandhurst I wholeheartedly agree with your comments on “serve to lead”. I was disappointed, however, to read that Habs has decided to abandon its own motto “serve and obbey”. To my mind, tradition is something quite precious. In a way it is like having a parent – they might not be the most exciting or well understood, but they are still your parent. You don’t exchange them for a new one simply because they are not fashionable.

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