Diocese de Dili > NOTÍCIAS > OPINIÃO > Servant Leadership in Catholic Education

Servant Leadership in Catholic Education

Father Domingos Gusmao, M.Ed

Diocesan, Diocese of Baucau, Timor Leste




           This article suggests that servant leadership can be effectively applied at Catholic Schools as a means for improving educational learning outcomes. The present  research shows, that by acting as Servant Leaders, educators at Catholic schools are better able to work in harmony with local communities, as well as staff and students. In addition, servant leadership is more likely prepared for providing a suitable form of moral and religious education based on consistent pedagogical and Catholic principles and values. Furthermore, research evidence suggests, that by acting as servant leaders, educators reflect biblical values in a more profound way.


Servant Leadership in Catholic Education

           Servant leadership in education is significant specifically in Catholic schools. It is based on the gospel of Mark, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, New American Standard Bible). In Catholic schools, the school principals are educational leaders and present themselves as exemplar servant leaders. By serving, rather than by being served, these principals influence teachers and staff to come together to educate students effectively.

           Pope Francis (Vatican Radio, 2015) presented St. Paul the Apostle as a servant leader of the ministry. Pope Francis said in his homily that St. Paul “gave himself completely to service” and ended his life in Rome. I believe this the genuine mission and service of St. Paul should guide us in our daily ministries in the Catholic Church. The educational leadership in Catholic schools is part of the pastoral ministries in the Church. Therefore, the style of life service that St. Paul the Apostle practiced, based on the gospel of Mark written above could guide present Catholic educational leadership into real service.

           This research paper is based on the interview of a school principal (a priest) and his nine teachers at Ensino Secundário Católico de Dom Basílio de Nascimento de Laclubar (henceforth referred to a Dom Basílio’s school) in Timor Leste or East Timor. 


Servant Leadership in Education

           Servant leadership is based on trust (Giancola and Hutchison, 2005). According to Giancolo and Hutchison (2005), “the virtue of servant leadership is supportive of the Human Dimension’s first component, namely, communication is based on trust.” This statement relates to The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1997) which was handed down by The Catholic School at the Second Vatican Council and which states that “since the Catholic school can be of such service in developing the mission of the people of God and in promoting dialogue between the Church and the community at large to the advantage of both”. This emphasizes the service that comes from the development of the mission of the people of God. This mission should reach all the people of God. Thus, Catholic education is part of the mission for Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.

           Despite the wide spread and varied Catholic schools around the globe, these Catholic schools all around the world have the same Catholic mission – emphasizing Catholic moral values. One of the main Catholic missions is that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, New American Standard Bible). This is central to the teachings of Jesus Christ and it is at the heart of Christ’s mission, (Phan, 2001).

          At the heart of Christ’s mission is the creation the Kingdom of God. This is characterized by universal peace, justice and love. The world needs this. Therefore, this Kingdom of God needs to be actualized in Catholic schools because it is part of the Catholic mission.

           In Timor-Leste, Catholic education is taught as part of these worldwide Catholic schools. Dom Basílio’s school tries to work according to The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1997). This senior Catholic school initiates and promotes dialogue between the Catholic school teachers and the community. In doing this, Dom Basílio’s school has appreciated the inputs of the local community leaders and the parents of the students and there is a constructive dialogue among teachers, school principal, parents and local community leaders. The interest of the parents and local leaders is in improving the quality of education and helping develop Catholic moral values in students.

          The main context for dialogue here is based on the academic improvement or academic achievement of a school (Fuller & Johnson, 2014). The style that Dom Basílio’s school emphasizes is through school leadership – that the school leader leads with the involvement of parents and local community figures/authorities.

          Dom Basílio’s school tries to follow The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1997).It also tries to follow the Code of Canon Law, which links it with Catholic education. According to Grocholewski (2013) the Code of Canon Law outlines two sets of rights and duties: one that grants parents of students the right and obligation to give a Catholic education to their children, and another that the Church has the right and obligation to offer parents help, if needed, to carry out their duty.

          The principal of Dom Basílio’s school has initiated work with the local people and the parents of the students. The parents of the students and local government leaders work well with the school. According to the interview of the school teachers and the school principal, the attendance of parents and local government leaders at school meetings and activities is maximal.

           “Servant leadership demands a practical relationship with members of the school community, resulting in the building of healthy learning school communities” according to Nsiah & Walker (2013, p.148).This statement reflects the spirit of Dom Basílio’s school –that all staff and teachers are united and work well together with their school principal. It also seems that the trust of people outside of the school, especially the parents, is based on this mutual understanding. Therefore the educational leadership of this school demonstrates the methodology of a servant leader.

           In the area of education, leaders of Catholic schools can also be called educational servant leaders. The educational servant leader characterizes trust, and does not try to control others but instead strives to create a place in which people can find meaning in their work, according to Giancola and Hutchison (2005). Nsiah and Walker (2013, p.149) similarly argue, “We believe that one’s identity of servanthood in Christ is the key or root source of this kind of servant leadership.” This servant leadership is based on the gospel of Matthew and Mark, where Jesus says “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 & Mark 10:45, American New Standard Bible). John 13:1-17 reaffirms this. Jesus said and led, putting himself into action.

           I think this is one of the main gospel references to the pastoral work of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, this particular gospel reference is in line with educational servant leadership. In Catholic schools Catholic educators work as servants in order to gain trust from students and their parents. We can go so far as to say that one of the pastoral duties of the Catholic Church is education. Therefore, the verses of the gospel mentioned above are a good guide for Catholic school principals and teachers to be servant teachers and servant leaders.

          The specific pastoral work in Catholic schools may be called a mission in academic pastoral work. In academic pastoral work, according Gravissimum Educationis (Pope Paul VI, 1965, p.6) “special attention should be given in Catholic universities and colleges to institutes that serve primarily the development of scientific research”, and those students who are trained and prepared in the Catholic schools are done so as a “service in the spread of the Kingdom of God” (Pope Paul VI, 1965, p.5).

          Those who work in Catholic schools may work together as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. When they work together they may serve each other and together they serve the students. As Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion (Instrumentum Laboris)(2014, p.21) says “collaboration in a spirit of unity and community among the various educators is essential and must be fostered and encouraged”. In this case, those among them who lead the group might be called educational servant leaders.

           In line with this, Wong & Denvey (2007) say that managers who practice servant leadership are characterized by serving rather than lording it over others. In relation to Wong and Davey’s work and The Catholic School (The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education,1977), for those who are responsible for Catholic Education the primary concern of the Catholic Church is that it offers an educational service to the poor or those who are from deprived families. Servant leadership may help to lift the dignity of humanity, so as “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, American New Standard Bible), those poor and deprived families become the mission of those servant leaders. Those genuine servants are exemplar leaders. They might be genuine followers of Christ. They follow what Jesus has said in the mentioned gospel above. They have come not to be served but to serve.  


A Catholic school principal as a servant leader

           Catholic school principals around the world have generally the same function as educational leaders however they have different leadership styles according to the situation in the country or region where the schools are located or situated. In my 2014 research study into Dom Basílio’s school, I found that there seems to be more of an educational servant leadership style. However, this style is still rarely used in Catholic schools around the globe.

           A main proponent of the servant leadership style is Greenleaf, who wrote about it at length in 1977. This style can not only used in administrative offices but seems applicable to the academic leadership style used in the Catholic schools. According to Gallagher (2010) the hierarchical leadership style of the church would welcome the self-imposed discipline of a servant leader. As this style of leadership is also very much related to the gospel, we may consider it to be part of the pastoral work that takes place in Catholic schools.

         My research study is based on an interview of the nine teachers and the school principal in Dom Basílio’s school. The nine teachers talked about the initiatives and service of the school principal. The initiative work was an example to the teachers and led them into the real service – becoming more open and friendly.

          The principal of Dom Basílio’s school has the characteristics of a servant leader. This school principal’s leadership style is full of friendship, concern, service and trust and as such, being very similar to the characteristics of a servant leader stated in Winston and Ryan (2008). Here, the authors claimed a servant leader would have characteristics such as humility, care, concern, benevolence, altruism, service, fairness and friendship related definitions of love.

          The principal and teachers work well together which has provided a better academic environment for the students. As a result, the students perform better in national exams compared to the other schools in the region. In my interview with the school’s faculty, two teachers said that twice – in 2013 and 2014 – students achieved the highest rank at the National University of Timor-Leste. This suggests that an educational servant leadership style may help students obtain better academic results. It seems intuitive that a servant leader who encourages parents of students to extend their own ideas and inputs to school staff will improve the quality of education at school.

          I think in the future this educational servant leadership style may influence other traditional educational styles throughout the country. Even Pope Francis says that “Catholic schools and Universities make a great contribution to the mission of the Church when they serve growth in humanity, dialogue and hope” (Zenit, Feb 9, 2017). This Catholic Senior High School may demonstrate the positive progress of the mission and service of Catholic schools in East Timor. 



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