by Yeo Jia Qi (15S03H)
For a school that aims to mould every single one of its students into Thinkers, Leaders and Pioneers, leadership in RI is too narrow and too exclusive. Exposure to leadership opportunities and their benefits are limited to those who have made commitments that can be so remarkably heavy as to present an intimidating entry barrier. And upon the completion of their responsibilities, leaders are recognised too superficially, and too automatically. Because of these inherent shortcomings in how our school tries to fulfil its commitment to developing all of us as leaders, I argue that we must seriously reconsider our model of leadership.
The predominant way our school presents leadership is as service – to lead is to serve others. Required attributes of ‘good’ leaders would necessarily include selflessness and sacrifice. A significant number of us, including the Student Council, will have poured in a full seven months of effort when Orientation commences next week. This will no doubt help their personal development; and for their sheer collective efforts in organising an event truly meaningful to the next Year 5 batch, they definitely deserve our respect.
But leadership in RI is not inclusive. Any discussion of new suggestions on how things should be done originates from inside rather than outside a selective tight community of appointed leaders. Granted, this does not prevent minor shifts from year to year in the spirit of continual improvement, necessarily dependent on the dedication, creativity and dynamism of those appointed, such as Council rebranding Snack Attack with a pay-it-forward initiative.
Still, this creates an exclusive mentality. Everyone in the batch either has an appointment and is therefore expected to fulfil the appointment’s responsibilities, or is reduced to a passive follower without a voice, not targeted or included in school leadership initiatives. To illustrate this artificial divide, consider the CCAL Conference 2014. Though it comprised in-house workshop sessions about widely applicable leadership skills and competencies that any student could have benefited from and found useful in his or her capacity as a CCA member, the conference was only open to CCALs, despite it being held on a day without lessons. At least offering others without formal appointments the opportunity to sign up if they were interested would have cast leadership as a skill set available to everyone rather than an exclusive few. While the explanation was that the number of seats was limited and sessions were oversubscribed, it was observed by participants that there were numerous vacancies in some sessions.
In this manner, the entry barrier of the appointment, while undeniably creating an important culture of commitment and responsibility, creates a culture of leadership being an appointment-linked equivalent. Even some appointments’ promised commitments are not fulfilled, such as subject representatives being promised consultation sessions with respective subject departments in the student handbook, while no evidence of this exists in practice. A lot of Rafflesians may have a lot of appointments and leadership responsibilities, but a community that is relatively large with respect to the population is not necessarily less difficult to join. If we define leadership as service, ensuring accessibility to recognition for all should be very crucial, but we do not seem inclined to see leadership as anything other than contractual obligations and responsibilities of an appointment.
Further, the appointment is the pre-requisite for Raffles Diploma recognition of leadership. If everyone receives the RD, then opportunities to be recognised should be equally available to everyone. This would be similar to the idea behind the Community & Citizenship domain, which recognises everyone’s community service hours logged regardless of the form of service. The present status quo, however, denies recognition to those who cannot pass the entry barrier of receiving an appointment first.
To make matters worse, the selection process for leadership appointments is inevitably semi-democratic and complicated with innumerable shortcomings, so few will have the courage to apply and even fewer will have the luck to take up the said appointment. It follows that even the enthusiastic and passionate may be denied recognition simply because of the vagaries of the selection process. Then upon handover or completion, appointment holders are assured that a single or at best a few lines of text following a standardised format will automatically appear in our CCA record or RD. This utterly fails to capture the respect that truly effective leaders receive from their followers, criticise ineffective performance, point out areas for improvement, or describe the associated struggles and sacrifices of our leadership journey.
I argue that we need to make leadership more inclusive and more dynamic by extending its boundaries beyond appointment-based leadership to include personal, day-to-day leadership, whether in daily school life or community service, thus lowering the entry barriers to recognition. We can also recognise leadership effectiveness more qualitatively. We can do this in three ways: by broadening recognition, redesigning the preparation process for leaders, and making committing more flexible.
First, we should attempt to broaden recognition of acts of leadership, which are equally valid however small they are. More personal leadership, including matters such as conduct and character, could be recognised too. Those who organise their own events, or initiate their own community service projects involving working with peers, should be given credit for leadership on top of the community service they perform. Peer appraisals and testimonials from friends or teachers involved can better gauge one’s actual effectiveness as a leader than automatic recognition on one’s portfolio upon completing one’s duties or a simple quantity of CiP hours. Internal school awards such as the FIRE award represent valuable platforms to realise this possibility. In particular, the RD presents a real opportunity to improve on the standardised MOE CCA grading system, which summarises one’s sacrifices in a black-and-white printout of tables and numbers of points, by actually offering qualitative rather than quantitative recognition. The Diploma is, however, a missed chance at present because any recognised merit still needs to fall under neat categories of positional basis.
Second, we should redesign the ways in which our new leaders are prepared for their responsibilities. We can do so by making the preparation more open and more diverse. Making preparation more open would mean offering opportunities for learning, such as the CCAL Conference, to all students. This is something the Foundations of Service Learning workshops have already achieved and in so doing successfully presented service as a universal endeavour everyone is equally capable of. Making preparation more diverse would mean focusing on holistic exposure, such as inviting alumni for assembly talks on leadership. It should also involve toning down the focus on physical preparation: developing leadership and self-confidence through bonding on expeditions or challenging adventure trips like ALPS, which though effective, are but one way to prepare students for leadership roles. This would widen our expectations of our leaders and give leadership a more flexible, fluid and inclusive definition.
Third, we should make committing to leadership in RI more flexible. No one should fear that any contribution is too insignificant or informal (being not dignified by an appointment or title) to be recognised qualitatively, and thus be willing to commit themselves to their own degrees of comfort. More people, especially those without formal appointments, or the deserving who have had to decline such commitments for personal reasons, should be invited to come onboard in any way they can in the managing of events by those already responsible, since an important skill of leadership is managing peers in complex, practical contexts. This should be an indicator of effectiveness of leadership and can be included in the way our school assesses and recognises leaders’ contributions.
These suggestions are ambitious and wide-ranging. I am under no illusion that most of them will be exceedingly difficult to implement in entirety. Meeting the resultant challenges will require much willpower and persistence. But the spirit of reform and continual improvement is fundamental to ensuring leaders through the times continue to be effective in serving their followers and fulfilling changing expectations, setting themselves apart. RI needs to rediscover that spirit. It is time to begin thinking about making our model of leadership more inclusive.