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From good to great

| November 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Lidia Upton

Kurt Hahn, founder of Round Square and Outward Bound, wrote in 1947 that: “Education has no nobler task than to provide the moral equivalent of war.”

Enigmatic at best, the statement is nonetheless challenging. In a global environment that has become increasingly competitive, education has had to focus on preparing young people to create their own niche in the marketplace – a potentially hostile milieu that, in the light of Hahn’s statement, could be considered a battle zone.

St Stithians Boys’ College leadership programme

How then do we, as teachers and educationists, prepare our students to face their tenuous future? Under the guidance of Headmaster David Knowles, St Stithians Boys’ College has placed increasing stress on the importance and value of acquiring leadership skills. Based on Jim Collins’s book Good to Great, and on the teachings of Ken Jennings and John Stahl- Wert1, the college developed a leadership programme as an essential part of the rites of passage each boy undergoes as he moves from adolescence to becoming a man during his secondary school tenure.

The programme, known as ‘Bezants to Knights’ – or, more familiarly ‘B2K’ – begins with each Grade 8 student receiving a ‘Bezant’ – a representation of the 15 ancient coins on our school badge. The Bezants were designed by Michael Matthews, our Art teacher, and take the form of an embryonic future knight, still rough at the edges and not yet fully formed. The boys receive them at a formal ceremony in our chapel in front of parents and teachers.

Modules and camps The B2K process develops through the completion of modules and camps from Grades 8–11, culminating in the course on serving leadership undertaken by the Grade 11 students in preparation for their final year at school. The aim is to foster an understanding that leadership is cumulative, and that leaders create the culture necessary for success in any environment, from that of a family unit to a multinational organisation.

An essential aspect of the course is communicating that everyone is inherently a leader, whether that leadership is overt and apparent or not: it is how the leadership qualities are manifest that is of vital importance. Thus, in Grade 11, each student is appointed as the mentor to a Grade 8 student, and that relationship is maintained until the mentor graduates in Grade 12; the ‘mentee’ then assumes his role as a mentor. Through this process, guidance is given on the difference between role models and heroes, and on how vital it is to lead through example at all times. An extension of this is the Grade 12 leadership tie with which each Matric student is presented in Chapel, acknowledging that although he may not have the position of prefect, he has a responsibility to others and a role to play as a leader of the school.

A moving ceremony underpinned by a pyramid process

From this is born the concept of serving leadership, symbolically represented at the prefects’ induction ceremony by the new Head Prefect and his deputies washing the feet of Grade 8 students. The occasion is always a moving one, and one that the entire school recognises as the cornerstone of our system of leadership within the college. Jennings and Stahl-Wert call this process ‘upending the pyramid’ and stress that true leaders place themselves at the bottom of the stereotypical hierarchical pyramid to empower others. A great leader’s primary function is to serve, and to this end he is governed by two primary principles: first, an overwhelming sense of humility combined with the understanding that it is the cause or organisation that is important, not an individual. Second, a great leader has a clear vision of what is important, and although systems may be flexible, the core values remain fixed and are constant denominators.

Thus, truly great leaders are receptive to change and to new ideas rather than feeling threatened by them – they are always learning and open to different information, encouraging others to do the same. But perhaps the most important quality of great leaders is that although mistakes and short-term failures may be acceptable as part of a learning process, long-term failure is simply not an option. Because of this, they work to achieve, not just to avoid failure or to sustain systems and maintain the status quo. And it is possibly this last quality that will prove to be of greatest importance in providing our students with the ammunition they need to survive their battles – moral or otherwise.

Upon leaving the school, each Grade 12 student receives an African Knight, again designed by Michael Matthews. At this traditional prize-giving, each student’s readiness to assume his responsibilities in his social context is acknowledged. Implicit in the receiving of the Knight is that all can, and will, lead at some stage of their lives.


1 Collins, J. (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. London: Harper Business. Blanchard, K.,Jennings, K and Stahl-Wert, J. (2003) The Serving Leader: 5 Powerful Actions That Will Transform Your Team, Your Business, and Your Community. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Category: Summer 2011

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