Serve to Be Great
John Norlin sat in the audience as the speaker on stage asked the 1,200 students in attendance a profound question. “How many of you have had a parent or guardian at the end of the day, ask you “What did you do for others today?”
Only 2 students raised their hands.
John thought of MLK’s famous quote, Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others’ and was inspired to change the paradigm in his school district. With the support of his Superintendant and colleagues at Sumner School District in Washington State, John went to work to create and implement a servant-leadership and character based curriculum.
The program started with two leadership classes that intentionally taught a model of servant-leadership that focused on the importance of influence built on service and sacrifice that is demonstrated by love, specifically agape love, which is an unconditional, deliberate choice type of love. Many of Sumner’s students refer to this type as “Love is a Verb”.
The instruction also teaches the importance of building character and does so through an intentional 40 day Character Dare, which focuses on the 8 Essentials of Agape Love in action through different challenges that connect to Patience, Kindness, Humility, Respect, Selflessness, Forgiveness, Honesty, and Commitment.
The program has grown to 7 classes and over 250 students per day in one school being taught about servant-leadership and character. This has spread across the district from their elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools and has impacted the district in real and powerful ways. Whether students do each of the daily character challenges or not, the key is that they are being reminded daily of the question, “What are you doing for others today?” and are thinking and acting differently in the hallways, classrooms, ballfields, and in their own homes.
Students are experiencing victories with their families, improving the relationships around them, creating impactful community service events and realizing that they have a greater purpose in this world than just showing up to school and sitting through classes.
John Norlin is now the Director of Student Leadership at Sumner School district and the small program he began 10 years ago has not only become a movement that has transformed their community but serves as a model for teaching servant leadership in our schools.
In a world focused on standardized test scores and trivial facts we can Google instead of memorize, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if every school made leadership a priority and taught classes on servant leadership.
Imagine the next generation of leaders focusing on serving others instead of themselves. Rather than leading to gain power they would understand the power of empowering others. They would realize what true greatness is all about. Instead of what they see in the media they would look at history and know that great leaders succeed because they bring out the greatness in others; that to be a great leader you must be a servant leader; that you don’t have to be great to serve but you have to serve to be great.
And while leadership classes in all our schools would be amazing I also know that the best way for us to lead is by example. As the leaders of today we must model servant leadership for the next generation and show them the way.
In this spirit, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let me ask you: What will you do for others today?