RI’s Leadership Model: Inherent Shortcomings

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.

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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.

One thought on “RI’s Leadership Model: Inherent Shortcomings”

  1. Great article. There have always been voices calling for RI leadership programmes to be more inclusive, and as far as I know, the school has definitely responded over the years by introducing more personal development programmes (like the Raffles Leadership Programme, which started when I was in Sec 3), inviting prominent speakers, and supporting new CCA/personal initiatives (although I have also heard that some CCAs have stopped for various reasons). Articles like this keep change/adaptation on the school’s agenda, so I’m glad that this writer has renewed the call for greater inclusiveness.

    I graduated from RI in 2011, so I may not be fully aware of developments in RI over the past few years, but I hope my two cents’ worth will be a meaningful contribution nonetheless. The main tension in ‘formal recognition’ of leadership (or any attribute of success in school) is between rigidity and flexibility. If formal recognition (through awards, certificates, CCA points, etc.) is too flexible (i.e. heavily based on testimonials, references and interviews, and students don’t know what teachers are looking for), then you get allegations of subjectivity of standards, and calls for some black-and-white criteria (attained a leadership position, participated in an international competition, etc.). If it is too rigid, then you get calls for an expansion of the definition of leadership/success (like this article). I think the tension is impossible to get rid of. I’m sure the writer understands the complexity of the situation, as seen in the final paragraph.

    There is also tension in making an exclusive concept more inclusive. I think leadership is inherently exclusive – in a decisional context, some will be leaders and some will be followers. The reason we say that everyone is a leader is because different people take the lead in different decisional contexts – in a group of 5 people, Person A may take charge in one project, but Person C may take charge in a different project – and also because hierarchical organisation allows different people to be leaders of ‘smaller’ or ‘larger’ groups (or responsibilities). But in every one of these scenarios, there are leaders and followers. This probably sounds very arrogant (sorry) but this is not meant to be a normative statement – nobody said that being a leader is better than being a follower. I cannot imagine everyone being a leader at the same time in the same decisional context, but I can imagine every student being a leader at some point in time whether in school or after leaving school. Since that is the case, a school should provide opportunities to all its students, and since it cannot realistically open up the same workshops to 2000+ students, it should have as many opportunities as possible (targeted at different groups so that you don’t get the same few people going). The writer touched on this in the third-last paragraph.

    It’s a fantastic article, but I would add one caveat. In making ‘committing to leadership in RI more flexible’, the school shouldn’t go to the other extreme of discouraging hard work and perseverance. I’m slightly wary of the idea that students should ‘be willing to commit themselves to their own degrees of comfort’. Leadership is not meant to be ‘comfortable’. Growth is uncomfortable. Students should be encouraged to test their limits. Employers will not allow us the luxury of committing to their own degree of comfort (not that I know much about the working world). I think it would make more sense if the word ‘comfort’ was replaced with ‘ability’ (which includes ‘availability’).

    Over the past few years, I’ve seen some of my batch-mates shine brilliantly in various fields. Some have started businesses, some have excelled in the SAF, some have attained positions of leadership in university societies, some have started their own social initiatives/movements. Some have been an inspiration to their peers without taking on any formal appointment in any society – through their strength of character and willingness to place others before themselves. Many of these individuals did not have any formal recognition in school. That tells me that the lack of formal recognition in school is not a barrier to development and achievement after school :)

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