The servant leader

“There is more in you than you think”
Phil Mathe looks at the profound international legacy of one of the twentieth century’s greatest educational thinkers. You may not have heard of him but his influence suffuses international education.
A teacher and his pupil

In August 1933, a teacher met a pupil at a school for the first time. The pupil went on to become a household name, sometimes controversial and always outspoken and central to British society for 80 years. The teacher on the other hand, is far less well known and yet, his impact on the education of children across the world has been both profound and significant, arguably paving the way for the modern-day holistic pupil focused education systems of countries from America to Australia.

I recently asked my colleagues across the space of two days who had heard the name of this teacher and almost none had any idea who he was and yet, on a daily basis, often subconsciously, we deliver education rooted in the philosophies of Gordonstoun School and its enigmatic Headmaster.

Kurt Hahn

The pupil was Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, the late consort to Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and his teacher was Kurt Hahn.

Hahn created a school in Gordonstoun in the north east of Scotland, designed to help pupils discover interests and passions, to prepare them to thrive and lead not just to pass tests. It would develop strength of character and future leaders and it would focus on holistic achievement not just academic excellence. It was a school focused on experiential education whereby opportunity to learn through experience sat alongside traditional classes. I imagine that sounds very familiar to many teachers around the world today.

Hahn’s learning principles

Over the course of the next 7 decades Hahn and his “Ten Expeditionary Learning Principles” have become interwoven into the fabric of educational practice across the world, much of the time without it even being recognised.

  • The primacy of self-discovery
  • The having of wonderful ideas
  • The responsibility for learning
  • Empathy and caring
  • Success and failure
  • Collaboration and competition
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • The natural world
  • Solitude and reflection
  • Service and compassion

Translated into modern schooling many of these appear in our visions, our mission statements and our founding principles. Educational conversation regarding pedagogical practice can be traced back to Hahn’s philosophies for education of the youth of his day.


Global influence

Today Hahn’s principles can be found guiding the practice of schools globally. The Round Square organisation of which I was lucky enough to be a tiny part of whilst teaching in Kenya and the EL Education Network of Schools across America, have taken Hahn’s ideas and developed them for the modern world.

As the EL Network states on their website they support “challenging, adventurous and meaningful learning where achievement in all its forms, flourishes”. Round Square schools across the world share a commitment to character education and experiential learning built around IDEALS – International Understanding, Democracy, Environmental Stewardship, Adventure, Leadership and Service. Underpinned throughout by the teachings of Hahn.

Beyond this, though, Hahn’s focus on the development of the whole person rather than just the academic student resonates from every major educational system globally. We no longer focus on just progress in the classroom but on the sports field, in the theatre or music room, in the community spirit and awareness of our pupils and their ability to cooperate, collaborate and most importantly, to lead others.

Servant leadership

Hahn believed in the principles of Servant Leadership. American author and Leadership Guru Ken Blanchard explains servant leadership as “a model in which Leaders assume a traditional role, setting vision, direction, and strategy for an organisation then serving the middle managers and frontline people who in turn serve the customer. Now the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership.”

In an educational context Servant Leadership is the leading of vision and mission then supporting those charged with the implementation of the schools vision through development of curriculum, pastoral and extra-curricular provision.

However, Hahn believed that most importantly Servant Leadership was something that should be imparted onto children, who are obviously, the leaders of tomorrow.

According to Hahn, there are 10 characteristics of servant leadership that all schools should look to embed in their curriculum and extra-curricular programmes for their pupils:

  1. Listening

The ability to really listen and hear what people are saying to you. Focus on the moment and give people the attention they need, when they need it. Avoid forcing your thoughts or comments on others when they are trying to tell you something

  1. Empathy

Understand other people’s intentions and perspectives and be able to put aside you viewpoint temporarily. Hear other perspectives, and approach situations with an open mind and an open heart.

Focus on the wellbeing of others

1. Healing

hers. Support them both physically and mentally. Make sure those around you have the knowledge, experience and resources they need to succeed and ensure their happiness and engagement in life

2. Awareness

Know how to look at yourself, be able to think deeply about your emotions and behavior and reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Be able to manage your emotions so they don’t impact negatively on those who rely on you.

3. Persuasion

Can you encourage those around you to take action, to work with you and support consensus? Be persuasive, without taking advantage of the relationships you have with others.

4. Conceptualization

Be able to “dream great dreams,” Look beyond day-to-day realities to the bigger picture. Have a vision and be able to engage those around you to buy into your dream and work with you towards the realisation of that dream.

5 Foresight

Are we able to look forward and anticipate outcomes or issues before they occur, so that we can identify the consequences of decisions or actions. We must learn to trust our intuition and our instinct!

6. Stewardship

Leaders must take responsibility for the actions and performance of their team, and be accountable for the role team members play in periods of success and failure.

7. Commitment to the growth of others

Servant leaders must be committed to the personal and professional development of everyone they lead, even at the expense of their own progress.

8. Building communities

We must learn to build relationships that go beyond the professional. By creating a supportive and nurturing environment where everyone feels valued and worthwhile we grow teams with shared ethos, vision and purpose.

(“Character and Servant Leadership: 10 Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders” by Larry C. Spears, published in “The Journal of Virtues and Leadership,” Vol. 1, Issue  and

9. The future of servant leadership: our students

Many schools, regardless of curriculum or geographical region will have built some, most or all of these characteristics into their frameworks and with or without explicitly meaning to, begun to develop servant leaders of tomorrow. In an ever changing and challenging world that will need its leaders to make the tough choices that drive humanity through the next generations, do we want our leaders to be self-serving or leading with servitude? If we can instil Hahn’s principles, Round Square’s IDEALS and EL’s frameworks of learning, then the pupils we serve as teachers, are far more likely to serve others through their leadership, in adulthood.


Phil Mathe is Director of Sport at Brighton College Al Ain in the UAE, having previously led PE departments in Egypt and Kenya. His passions include driving participation levels in pupils and embracing technology in PE teaching.


FEATURE IMAGE: by Steve Johnson from Pixabay 

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