Creating Leaders with a Servant’s Heart

By Johan Prozesky 2019-12-09 12:35:10

YCIS Leadership Team elaborate on cultivating the right set of principles in students and the value of humility

When discussing equipping children with the skills they will need to be successful in the future, time and again we hear the words “leader” and “leadership”, but why? This month, we visited Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), Puxi to ask its leaders why these buzz words are at the forefront of its mission for the future success of its pupils.

Discussing the school’s mission on creating competent and empathetic leaders are Don Collins, YCIS Puxi International Principal, and Grace Gu, YCIS Puxi School Business Manager, who together make up the Leadership Team of this longstanding international school. Central to YCIS’ vision is the idea of character formation, which is considered to be the most important shared responsibility of the school and the home.

Don Collins

YCIS Puxi International Principal


“It’s about developing the whole person”, begins Don. “People need greater awareness and greater empathy. For this, they need to understand how to resolve problems, how to think creatively, how to collaborate; they need to understand that you need to take care of others and they will take care of you. What we want is a world populated with people who have the right set of values. A kind of synergy then arises and that is the goal. That’s when leaders are developed”.

One of the most highlighted accomplishments of YCIS is the school’s reputation for academic results, which are well above global averages. From a certain perspective, this could suggest an emphasis on academic performance rather than a focus on character formation; however, as Don explains, “although character formation - the heart of our vision - does not guarantee academic success, it does set the scene. But beyond this, we appreciate that our students are able to balance their focus on academics with many other interests and activities, always incorporating the philosophy of aiming to make the world a better place”.

Character building demands, first of all, a sense of self; to know and love yourself. Don cites a slogan that clarifies this quite succinctly: “be you, everyone else is taken”. (We’re keeping that one , Don!) Following these actions, the next step is the giving of oneself. Through YCIS’ extensive programmes of service, the school teaches students to care for others, to take time to help others and to be conscious of how their behaviour affects the planet; which in turn affects society. Through this, the school inspires students to act for a better world and to lead by example.

YCIS aims to instil within its graduates a deep respect, understanding and appreciation of world cultures and with this comes the expectation to master both Chinese and English, as well as to develop proficiency in other modern languages. This promotes empathy in students and helps them understand how society and the rest of the world operates; thus, developing empathic leaders. What’s more is that these values then filter through to the rest of the school community and its families.

Leading with a Servant’s Heart – Setting the Example

Grace Gu comes from a solid, successful background in the hospitality industry. The fact that she is now in a role which manages and serves in education seems odd at first, but once she explains, it makes perfect sense.

“Hospitality is service and we must remember that education is also largely a service industry. One of the goals in hospitality is to create an outstanding experience by fostering a caring culture. Caring and charity feature prominently at our school, so there is a direct connection. That is one of the things I love about the school and it fits perfectly with my skills and experience”.

Other ethos that cross over into education for Grace are things like always striving to provide the best for students, which, in turn, benefits families and the community.

“Equally important”, Grace continues, “is the can-do mindset of the hospitality industry that we have embraced at YCIS Puxi. In hospitality, we are trained to say: “yes, I can do that!” We don’t easily say “no” to requests and needs, even very difficult ones and we bend over backwards to support whenever possible. We think very carefully about requests and try to assist whenever we can, determining which resources we have, or which we can obtain to fulfil requests”.

Grace and Don both use the analogy of a garden to describe YCIS’ focus on continuously looking at how to improve processes, actions and operations. Sometimes you plant, sometimes you prune, but in any case, a school, much like garden, requires constant care and attention and a keen focus on persistently finding opportunities for improvement. For these initiatives, Grace contributes unique perspectives, not only from a hospitality standpoint, but also representing the host country’s cultural point of view.

At the end of the discussion is one of Don’s final statements that resonates the most:

“The students of today will need to run the world better than we have done. It is our duty to equip them for this task”.

Meeting YCIS’ fervent leadership team is refreshing. They not only advocate leadership with a servant’s heart, but their service-orientated leadership style actively demonstrates this, setting the example for staff, parents, and, most importantly, its students.

As the esteemed author, Robert K Greenleaf once said, “good leaders must first become good servants”.

Grace Gu

YCIS Puxi School Business Manager