How Teaching Servant-Leadership Impacted One School

There are few people in this world who will disagree with you when you ask them if we should be teaching our students how to be more kind, patient, committed or humble, but it’s not everyday that you come across a school that builds their master schedule with one teacher whose full-time job is to teach students what solid character looks like. Inglewood Middle School is doing just that and has data to support the fact that it is changing their school’s climate and culture for the better and has seen a decrease in out of school suspensions by 90% since emphasizing the importance of teaching character-development during the school day.

Inglewood Middle School is one of twelve middle schools in the Lake Washington School District. Sally Rusk is a household name in the leadership world in Washington state because of the amazing work she has done at her school over the last decade. She is the leadership teacher at Inglewood and has been teaching leadership for seven years now. She is changing lives every single day because of her passion to teach students about the importance of character and helping them focus on building relationships in their school, homes and community through an intentional leadership curriculum.

When Sally first started teaching a traditional activities-based leadership class she struggled to fill two classes, one each semester, for her leadership class. That all changed when Sally began teaching a character-based leadership curriculum six years ago. When Sally first began teaching students about servant-leadership her classes began to quickly fill. She found that students were hungry to learn more about it. With a supportive administrator, Tim Patterson, they began to give Sally more and more classes of leadership because they saw the difference that it was making on a day to day basis. She now teaches three introductory leadership classes each semester and one advanced leadership class each semester. It is her full-time job! She would tell you that if her leadership class was still about putting on activities and making posters she would not be seeing these numbers. Kids WANT to be the best versions of themselves, and leadership allows them the opportunity to practice doing just that. She also credits an increase in numbers because the program became open to ALL types of kids, not just the stereotypical “perfect” leadership kid.  

How does teaching students about the principles of servant-leadership each and every day impact an entire school you might ask? Here is some data compiled from Inglewood Middle School...

In 2009 Sally began teaching leadership and the school operated under a traditional “Leadership” model which focused primarily on putting on assemblies and events. In 2011 they removed the cap on the number of kids who could take leadership which at the time was 45 students. You can see her numbers quickly took off from there. She now has about 32 kids in each introductory leadership class each semester and 38-40 students in her advanced leadership class each semester.

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If you then take a look at the suspension rate at her school in the graph below, her principal will say it directly correlates to the number of students taking leadership as their numbers dropped drastically as soon as more and more students were learning about the importance of strengthening their character and putting the principles of servant-leadership into action on a daily basis.

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The incredible part of this story is that this drop in suspensions also took place in a time when Inglewood was being reconfigured from a junior high to a middle school and their population grew by 20%. These types of transitions typically lead to increased disciplinary infractions, but Inglewood did not see this typical pattern. Inglewood’s out of school suspension rate has dropped by 90% since Sally began teaching a servant-leadership based class.

Lastly, her principal, Tim Patterson, added “In 2007 I expected to have 2-3 meetings a day with upset parents.  This school year I have had 3 meetings with upset parents. Leadership helps to build trust with our parent community, which dramatically reduces upset parents.  Leadership was the start of the positive spiral.”

It all started with one training, which led one teacher on a mission to make teaching character a priority in her building and has created a school that is focused on teaching the whole child.

Why Servant-Leadership?

Why Servant-Leadership?

Let’s get straight to the point. Why not servant-leadership? It is completely counter cultural and I would say that’s a good thing. All you have to do is ask an audience of any age, “Raise your hand if you have thought in the last month or even week that there is something wrong with the world based off of something you have seen or experienced”. Rarely is there a hand not raised. Why is this the case? Even though we don’t want to admit it, one big reason is that many of us are still stuck in our “terrible twos”. It is all about us and everyone is in our way. This is our default setting and we are not leaving people better than we found them because of it.  

Servant-leadership is a timeless model going back thousands of years, yet the phrase “servant-leadership” was actually coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 published essay titled, The Servant as Leader. In his writings Greenleaf points out that the ultimate test of a servant-leader is that people grew because of your leadership and were left better than you found them, especially those with the least amount of power.

The common phrase “Leaders are born” is not the belief in servant-leadership.  Servant-leadership is authority based on influence, which is built on service and sacrifice. This action of service is rooted in unconditional love, which starts with disciplined character that focuses on the everyday seemingly insignificant choices that we make daily. These small choices actually matter a great deal and are at the heart of building influence in the lives of those around us. Influence is a skill, no different than playing a sport, piano, or speaking in front of others. I can learn influence by practicing certain skills that will help me to become more influential and anyone can up their game when it comes to being more patient, kind, humble, respectful, selfless, forgiving, and committed.  Great leaders are not just born, they are made by the thousands of deliberate choices they make daily.

Power vs Influence

Servant-leadership flips the traditional power model of leadership upside down. Picture a triangle demonstrating the hierarchy of a business or organization with the CEO or boss at the top, different levels of Vice Presidents, Managers, etc… heading down the triangle until you eventually get to the front line employee. This is the way that many people I know view leadership.  The idea is that someone has a title and tells others what to do and magically they follow right? “Do it or else!” Wrong.

The average young person today will switch jobs at least 15-20 times and in many cases this is going to be because their boss doesn’t “get it”. Really what the boss doesn’t get is how to lead. Management is about the day-to-day operations and systems, but leadership is all about relationships.  When we flip the traditional business triangle upside down, but don’t switch the positions, all of a sudden the CEO and or people with the bigger titles are below those that are closest to the front lines. Now, does this mean that the boss or CEO is lower in importance? Absolutely not! Instead of, “Do it or else!” it changes to “Do it and I will meet your legitimate needs.” Note that there is still a “Do it” part of the statement. We got a job to do, but my job as your leader is to get you what you need to be most successful, to meet your needs by paying attention and showing appreciation. I am going to encourage you, push you, and build a relationship with you along the way. You will grow, not because you “have to” but because you “chose to”. Servant-leadership done effectively creates this through building influence instead of having to implement power or top down leadership. In fact, for a servant-leader, having to demonstrate power is a sign that your leadership has broken down. It is a last resort.


Holiday video clips to teach selflessness

Ahhh...the holidays. For some schools this means wrapping up food drives, winter wishes assemblies, clothing drives and on top of all of the activities you have students who have mixed emotions about the upcoming time off.

Here are five holiday video clips, that have a great holiday message, are engaging, and will leave students and yourself with a positive message and or dialogue about what is most important.

JC Penney Holiday Giving Back Episode (length 3:37) JC Penney asks the question to the customers, “Is it better to give or to receive?” and then gives customers a task to walk around the store and pick one person to pick any one thing in the store that they want and then interviews them afterwards.

Police Give Back with pulling people over for Christmas Gifts (length 3:46) Lowell Michigan police department decided to spread some holiday cheer by pulling people over, but instead of giving them a ticket, they asked them what they were hoping to get themselves or kids for the holidays, meanwhile there are people listening in on the conversation and they buy the gifts, wrap them and deliver to the officer before the traffic stop is over.



Apple's iPhone Christmas Commercial 2013 (length 1:31) A look at how one young man captured the holidays with family. The new Apple commercial from this year is also a great one to show: Open Your Heart To Everyone - “Frankie’s Holiday” by Apple

The Power of a Hug (length 5:16) a touching story of a four year old girl and an 80 year old man and a lasting relationship that forms at the grocery store from a simple hug. Even the most unlikely of characters can teach someone that there is something worth living for again.



WestJet Christmas Miracle: Real-time Giving (length 5:25) this WestJet advertisement is a few years old but is a fun way to end the last day of class with a special holiday gift the airliner gave to some of their travelers


Happy holidays,

John Norlin




Leadership Book Recommendations


As school professionals it can be easy to fill every spare minute with grading, lesson planning, TPE...nevermind we don't need to go there! I wanted to share with you a few recommended readings you might fill that extra time with this holiday break, you have earned it!

Here are three readings I recommend that are engaging books but also remind us the value of teaching our students the importance of our character.

The World's Most Powerful Leadership Principle, by James C. Hunter. This is my number one go to book for teaching servant-leadership. It is a pretty quick read that truly shaped the CharacterStrong curriculum. The book focuses on how agape love can transform relationships with all people you come in contact with. It is comprised of shorter sub-chapters that goes through the main components of servant-leadership.

*James Hunter will actually be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Middle School and High School Servus Conference hosted by the Sumner School District on March 8th at the Showare Center in Kent, WA. If you'd like more information on how to attend the conference please e-mail

The Road to Character, by David Brooks. The author takes a look at what society and our culture tells us is success i.e. fame, money, title and challenges us, to think more about our “eulogy virtues,” the core of who we are: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, and instead of looking at success as the examples listed above but instead grounded in the quality of our relationships with others. 
Extra bonus- The Humility Code in the back of the book is an awesome resource for any student of leadership and character.
*I was recently told by a colleague that her daughter, who is a student at Boise State University, was required to read this book before the school year started along with every other freshman on campus.

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. This book was personally recommended to me by author James C. Hunter. This book digs deep into habit development looking at how they are formed while giving real-life examples of how it has played out from the executive board rooms to the sidelines of the NFL. The author argues that one of the primary keys to success is understanding how habits work. A crucial piece of the CharacterStrong curriculum is strengthening your character muscle by intentionally building habits. This dives into what is going on behind the scenes connected to that work.

We hope you all have a restful holiday break filled with great food, lasting memories and moments to relax with the special people in your lives.

The Lost Art of Thank You Card Writing

In my close to 20 years of studying leadership and how organizations and people work, there has been a theme that I didn't truly notice for quite sometime, because it seemed so small and insignificant. What I noticed was that the most influential and effective leaders always made writing thank you notes and notes of encouragement or praise on a regular basis to those around them. These people have taken the lost art of thank you card writing and used it to enhance their leadership and their everyday lives.



Enhancing your leadership: Why would something as simple as writing a thank you note enhance someone's leadership? It starts with the fact that it is simple but not easy or everyone would do it. The reason why thank you notes mean so much is because it requires someone to take the time to write them. Thank you notes have more impact because they are not the normal means of communication anymore. Text messages, emails, or social media posts do not carry as much impact because they become so commonplace that they lose their impact. The interesting thing is that thank you notes do not take much time at all,  but in today's day and age where everything is so fast paced, rarely do people make time in their day to practice this important habit. Leaders would be wise to understand the power of making this a regular part of their routine. When leaders pay attention to those they lead and show appreciation through verbal and written compliments, they are meeting a basic human need. The more leaders sacrifice their time to recognize those they lead, the influence they will build in the lives of those they lead.

"IT'S Simple but not easy or everyone would do it"


Enhancing your everyday life: What life benefits could ten minutes a day writing a thank you note have on my everyday life? Robert Emmons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, notes that practicing gratitude daily carries a host of life benefits including physical, psychological, and social. Practicing gratitude keeps us focused on the good in the world, when it is so easy to stay concentrated on the negative. By practicing the skill of focusing on the good each day in people and situations, we are more likely to see the good when adversity hits, which leads to an overall increase in happiness in ones life. Gratitude also reminds us of our need for others support. We rely on others more than we realize sometimes and the more we are reminded of that, the more our humility will increase, which leads to an absence of pride and arrogance in our lives that leads to stress and more stress.