Mar 16, 2022

Schools Thrive When Principals Are Servant-Leaders

Principals in Mexican schools who receive leadership training focused on positive character traits go on to lead more successful schools. This is part of a series of articles examining how a human flourishing mindset can support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. See below for related series content.

By Daniela Salgado and Juan P. Dabdoub

Mexican public education context

Mexico reformed its educational system in 2012 in order to improve the quality of education in its public schools. One of the most important changes was in the design of the bureaucratic process by which teachers obtain or advance their positions within the public education system. Although the reforms were a great step forward, the teacher evaluations were not accompanied by a systematization of the training of new principals. While a variety of courses are offered free of charge to new and former school principals, there is not a defined path, meaning principals at different schools may have radically different approaches to their jobs. In addition, most of the courses offered to principals today are more oriented to developing administrative skills than to a character-based vision of virtuous leadership.

While some principals are quite successful on their own, many struggle to keep up with the emotional and leadership demands of the job. And although many principals in Mexico have the technical knowledge to pass their examinations and to do the job, they need support to excel as leaders. The job of a principal involves not just running the administration of a school and the budget, but also managing a staff of teachers and holding ultimate responsibility for the learning and developmental outcomes of students. Moreover, principals are responsible for facilitating an integral growth process for their communities, which encompasses students, teachers, parents and administrators. The job is often stressful and requires more than what is required to lead a classroom. At the same time, ample research shows that principals who are skilled leaders—and who display the traits of servant leaders—tend to run schools that are more effective.

Leadership courses focused on character and virtue development in schools can be found in English, and have been used in the United States for years. However, it is rare to find similar courses in Spanish that have been proven successful. Consequently, we thought of bringing one of these strategies that has already been tested and proven to be successful from the Center for Character and Citizenship (CCC) to the public middle school principals in Mexico, as part of an initiative called Educaracter.

Educaracter and Servant-Leadership

The Educaracter initiative seeks to improve principals’ character-based strengths with the goal of helping principals become better leaders by encouraging a servant leadership mindset. In developing Educaracter, we translated the three key elements of English language initiatives—Leadership Academy in Character Education (LACE), The PRIMED Model, and the Cultivating Virtue in Leaders Project (CViL)—into Spanish and adapted them for use within a Hispanic cultural context. Under the servant leadership approach encouraged by Educaracter, the most important trait for a leader is to serve the best interests of those that they are leading. The traits of servant leadership are often identified as Empowerment, Standing Back, Accountability, Forgiveness, Courage, Authenticity, Humility, Stewardship, and Noble Purpose, and leaders who possess these character traits are more likely to be followed and help their organizations succeed. These traits are developed via two courses. The first, the PRIMED Institute for Character Education, is a weeklong intensive, and it includes a substantial collaborative element to encourage relationship building between principals from different schools. The second training, the Leadership Academy in Character Education, takes place in nine full-day workshops distributed throughout the school year, including written collaborative reflections with expert feedback. 

Although this may sound straight forward, educational leadership training does not necessarily translate across cultures, since public education is closely linked to the political and social principles of each country. So, even though there is no guarantee that what works in the United States would work in Mexico, we think testing this is a very important step towards encouraging servant leadership in Mexico’s schools.

But what are the practical benefits of helping principals learn to be servant leaders and develop leadership with a character education approach?

Benefits of working towards a servant leadership model

  1. Improving relationships in order to build a community.

Sometimes the outcomes of this training may seem simple, but they are also profound. Much of the training focuses on helping principals accustomed to being authoritarian figures interact with teachers, employees and the school community as an equal member of their community, even though they have different roles and responsibilities. This means remembering that everyone the principal interacts with has their own affections, thoughts, interests and educational background that explains a lot of their behavior—in short, that they are dealing with human beings. The same goes for the principals themselves. Most importantly, it means helping principals not just tolerate but accept differences and embrace them as worthy. The more humanely principals are able to interact with their colleagues, the more they will be able to build a community, rather than a bureaucratic system.

  1. Develop communication skills and attitudes to improve virtuous relationships.

For instance, a key element of the training is teaching principals that they should actively listen to their teachers, give them a voice, and take into account their opinions and meditate on them. We suggest that they have conversations with their subordinates in a way in which they can say anything but the principal can only ask questions. The idea is that if a principal, who is used to being in a position of authority, can only ask questions, they may become more invested in understanding what is being said to them and more empathetic towards the speaker.

This shift in approach to conversations works. For example, one principal told us that he had a teacher who always used to complain and whom he dreaded speaking with. Previously, he always felt like he knew what she was going to say before she said it. After using the new conversational technique, he found that the teacher’s expressions and manner—which had typically been angry—changed. The principal soon realized that they actually felt similarly about the problems at the school and how to resolve them. Because the principal became a more empathetic and sincere listener, she became more comfortable speaking to him, and they became much closer as colleagues. Changing how principals communicate helps create a context in which healthy relationships can be nurtured. That effect cascades from principals to teachers to students and then between students themselves and on outwards to parents and the community at large in the form of cultural change. Fundamentally the project is focused on the potential of cultural change within communities, which will ultimately reshape institutions for years to come.

  1. Improving awareness of the educational mission.

The training does not stop with how principals communicate, however. It also seeks to help them understand better what their motivations are and how those motivations translate to the community they are building. Principals in the training develop a statement of their purpose as educators and the mission of their school. Although these statements already exist—printed in manuals or painted on walls—typically principals cannot recall their school’s mission at the beginning of the training because it is not organically their own. The training, rather than being prescriptive, seeks to help principals develop intrinsic motivations for what they do. The training runs for an entire school year, a natural rhythm for educators, and by the end of it, they will have developed a five-year plan for their schools rooted in principles of effective character education practices and servant leadership.

  1. Developing a new educational culture

These plans, rather than beginning with new curricula or procedures, focus on changing the culture and leadership within schools first. It begins with understanding how they relate to and communicate with their school’s community and requires that they develop new strategies, and then assess those strategies, as part of a learning process. It requires more vulnerability than the principals may be used to, but that vulnerability is a key factor in success among leaders in any sort of organization.

In the first year of these plans, principals focus on their sense of purpose and their virtues and how they treat other people. In the second year, they must create an authentic community with their teachers and staff, and figure out together the mission of the school that they want to be part of. They only begin implementing new programs and curricula, focused on sharing that mission with the students, parents and community, in the third year. This final step tends to be a multiyear process, but by the end of it, the character changes that began in the first year—rooted in empathy, vulnerability and listening—have rippled outwards, and usually come along with an improvement in academic results.

This ripple effect is what makes this sort of leadership training so impactful; it can shape entire communities and continue to generate positive behaviors and better outcomes for students for years. We also hope that this initiative will strengthen fruitful relationships between universities, international foundations and the public education system in Mexico. The inner traits of leaders have a profound impact on the world they live in. By training principals to be better listeners, to lead as servants, and to develop their own intrinsic purpose for their work, we not only are able to improve the quality of schools and the outcomes for students, but also the flourishing of communities and society. 


Juan P. Dabdoub is Professor at the School of Education and Psychology at University of Navarra in Spain and member of the Education, Citizenship, and Character Research Group (GIECC). He  has been researching and promoting moral and character education in Spain and Latin America with the support of the Templeton World Charity Foundation. He leads the Leadership Academy in Character Education and the PRIMED Institute for Character Education at University of Navarra, in Madrid. He is Scholar Affiliate of the Center for Character and Citizenship since 2020 and Secretary of the Association for Moral Education since 2021. He has also been leading, researching, and promoting Colegios Mayores in Spain for more than a decade. 


Daniela Salgado received her Ph.D. degree in Education from the University of Navarra in 2018. She collaborated for almost 6 years in the Secretariat of Education of Querétaro in Mexico, in the design and teaching of formative programs (ethics, civic and philosophical subjects) for teachers, parents and students particularly in Public Secondary Schools in the Department of Education in Values and Social Promotion. Since 2012 she is at the Universidad Panamericana in Guadalajara (Mexico), where she has held different positions and developed different projects: (2012) first, as professor, counselor and director of the Pedagogy and Psychopedagogy undergraduate programs and currently, as (2015) Dean of the School of Pedagogy and Psychology. Is a board member of two private schools in Jalisco, of the civil association focused on improving education in Mexico, Mexicanos Primero and of the Permanent Seminar on Educational Research of the Secretariat of Education of Jalisco, through which she promotes a character and relationship education that can help people to grow and humanize society.