Leading with Humility in International Schools

by Shane Leaning

We know that the key to effective leadership in international schools is not just to be heard, but to listen. Our task is less about setting the course single-handedly and more about synthesising many perspectives into one coherent vision. At the core of this complex endeavour lies humility, a trait that not only allows for diverse ideas but fosters an environment where real collective wisdom can emerge.

Humility in Leadership: A Broader Understanding

For many, the concept of humility may seem at odds with assertiveness or decisiveness, traits often associated with strong leadership. However, a closer examination reveals that humility can strengthen these qualities by providing a wider array of inputs and a deeper understanding of all stakeholders.

In international schools, the challenges often revolve around navigating complex intercultural issues, adapting to different environments, and understanding diverse educational systems.  When we take on the title of Leader in these schools, we step into a new world, filled with expectations, traditions, and customs unlike anything we may have known before. But what do you do if your educational philosophy clashes with deep-rooted cultural practices? How would you bridge the gap between what you believe and what others have been following for generations?

This was the daunting challenge faced by a newly appointed Australian Principal I know at an international school in China. Eager to implement a more independent, student-centred approach, she found herself in a cultural quandary. The teacher-centred tradition in China seemed in direct conflict with her vision. The initial resistance was palpable. Was her approach wrong, or was it just foreign?

Rather than imposing her views or retreating in defeat, she chose a path of humility. She sought guidance from local teachers and parents, who understood the culture and had insights she didn’t possess. What emerged was a hybrid educational model that combined the best of both worlds, a fusion of Western student-led inquiry with Eastern discipline.

The Principal’s humility wasn’t a sign of weakness but a beacon of strength. Her willingness to listen, learn, and adapt led to an innovative solution that was not only accepted but celebrated. How often do we recognise that our way may not be the only way? How often are we willing to let go of preconceived notions and open ourselves to something entirely new?

Her story is a compelling reminder that humility can be the key to unlocking doors. It’s a lesson in leadership that transcends borders and resonates with anyone who seeks to lead with empathy, understanding, and innovation.

So how can you bring about a more humble approach to your leadership? Here are a few ideas to get you started, each with an action you can implement straight away.

Five Strategies for Incorporating Humility into Leadership

1Seek Regular Feedback

Action: Implement a system for anonymous feedback or conduct open forums.

Feedback from staff, students, and parents is a critical resource for growth. Encouraging and seeking feedback through various channels can open the door to new ideas and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

2. Admit When You’re Wrong

Action: Publicly acknowledge mistakes and communicate lessons learned.

Admitting when we’re wrong shows a value for growth over ego and creates an atmosphere of transparency and trust. It also sets a positive example for our students, demonstrating that learning from mistakes is an essential part of personal development.

3. Acknowledge Others’ Contributions

Action: Regularly recognise and appreciate the contributions of staff and students.

Publicly recognising and appreciating the hard work and ideas of others not only boosts morale but fosters a culture where everyone feels valued. This practice enhances collaboration and encourages others to contribute their best efforts.

4. Learn from Others

Action: Regularly engage with various school members to understand perspectives.

Truly being open to learning from anyone, irrespective of their role or status, builds a richer, more inclusive school culture. It reflects a genuine respect for others’ experiences and insights, empowering everyone to feel their voice matters.

5. Embrace New Ideas and Perspectives

Action: Encourage innovation and creativity by creating spaces for brainstorming and free expression of ideas.

Embracing new ideas and thinking outside the box can lead to unique solutions and richer experiences. This approach promotes a dynamic and evolving educational environment that resonates with our international context.

Humility is more than a personal virtue; it’s an actionable leadership skill that significantly impacts our international schools. Whether it’s integrating different educational philosophies or finding creative solutions to budgeting woes, humility opens the door to collaboration, innovation, and effective decision-making.

This post was inspired by Episode 16 of The Global Ed Leaders podcast, where Shane Leaning discussed the importance of humility in international schools. You can listen to this episode and more leadership discussions for international school leaders at https://www.shaneleaning.com/podcast or on your usual podcasting app.

Shane Leaning is the host of The Global Ed Leaders podcast and Regional Head of Teaching Development for Nord Anglia Education’s, China Bilingual Schools.

To connect with him, click Here

One thought on “Leading with Humility in International Schools

  1. What a great article! I love how are define ‘Humility’, it’s not a sign of weakness but a beacon of strength! So true, nobody knows everything, it’s also important for leaders to look for feedback even tough feedback from their staff and stakeholders. Look forward to seeing your updates Shane.

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