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The ideal of a servant leader — one who focuses on the needs of others and guides through persuasion rather than the exercise of raw power — has been upheld by religious leaders and philosophers for millennia. Only recently, however, has it found its place in the sociological theory of leadership styles. Today, servant leadership is at the heart of a new program to help future educational leaders develop their own core virtues and learn to shape those of the institutions they will eventually lead.

The program, funded with a recent $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and partner grants from the Kern Foundation and others, will be developed under the leadership of Melinda Bier and Marvin Berkowitz at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It will build on the foundation of the Berkowitz-headed Leadership Academy in Character Education (LACE), which was founded in 1998 to help school leaders initiate transformation in ways that develop student character as well as academic and social skills. Since then, LACE has been used to train more than 800 Illinois and Missouri school leaders. LACE graduates have been at the helm of a disproportionately high number of the National Schools of Character.

The key new element to the project will involve adapting the Cultivating Virtues in Leadership (CViL) curriculum, an individual-leader-focused initiative developed beginning in 2017 with a Templeton Foundation seed grant. The new hybrid curriculum will focus on cultivating virtues like purpose, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, courage, empowerment, and foresight. It will help participants to practice servant leadership as individuals and to make nurturing servant leaders a core value at the schools they serve. Bier and Berkowitz have already begun adapting CViL’s content, which currently consists of eight three-hour modules focusing on specific virtues. By the end of next year, the curriculum will be ready for an initial cohort of 60 school leaders in the St. Louis area. The roll-out will be monitored with tools developed by project partner Jennifer Urban and her team at Montclair State University. After the initial cohort, Bier and Berkowitz will make the curriculum, along with a detailed replication guidebook, available for wider use.

“Many educators first enter their profession out of a strong sense of purpose and a desire to serve their students, but until recently almost no formal school leadership development programs were centered on developing and enhancing such virtues,” says Sarah Clement, the John Templeton Foundation’s director of character virtue development. “Mindy Bier and Marvin Berkowitz are uniquely positioned to provide a rigorous, and replicable way of helping educators leverage those values as they develop as leaders.”