In an age characterized by the marketing credo "i" that is used to promote a range of products and services from personalised and customisable mobile technologies, to cars and insurance it is worth pondering this obsession with 'self' and its impact on the relational and civic bonds that create and sustain communities.
In his book The Myth Of Self Esteem, Hewitt states that "Self-esteem has all the ear marks of a reigning cultural myth, a tale that informs us about what we should strive for, explains how to seek it and warns us about the perils that lie in wait for us. … It is a contemporary tale in which men and women overcome mainly psychological obstacles to success and happiness." He goes on to say, "It is a word (Americans) use to underscore our belief that the individual is the centre and measure of all things." In this myth of self esteem we have a profound mirror of our culture a way of gaining some perspective on the way we think and act, and of discovering the contradictions –indeed the problems that are built into our view of ourselves and our world." (pages xii-xiii)
Dr Helen McGrath a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Deakin University was recently cited in The Age as stating that "Parents and teachers always have the best interests of children at the heart of what they do and their involvement in the 'self-esteem movement' has reflected that. However, although well-intentioned, this movement is now seen by many researchers to have contributed to a stronger sense of entitlement and, in some cases, higher levels of narcissism." Narcissists have an inordinate fascination with self, an overinflated sense of entitlement and superiority, accompanied by vanity and a lack of empathy.
Whether narcissism is a generational or cultural phenomenon is open to debate and analysis. Research conducted by Professor of Psychology, Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, said a study she conducted of 16,000 university students across the US showed 30 per cent were narcissistic in psychological tests, compared with 15 per cent in 1982. ''They are all 18 and 19-year-olds, so this is clearly a generational shift,'' she said.
However Professor Johanna Wyn, director of the Australian Youth Research Centre at Melbourne University says "Jean Twenge can't speak for Australians". Based on her research conducted through
the Life Patterns project, Wyn rejects the narcissistic label given to young people in Australia today. "I don't see anything like that in the data we've got and we've been researching Generation X for over 22 years," she says. In fact Wyn argues "as they get older volunteering increases so, instead of becoming more narcissistic, they are becoming more community minded in general and I think that's really important."
It is debatable whether it is a generational manifestation or a cultural one. However as educational leaders we should seek to help young people develop a healthy sense of self-respect, resilience to deal with life's inevitable challenges and setbacks and to encourage service to others. Tony Wright writing in the Saturday Age observed:
"Selflessness may seem a rare enough property in the era of celebrity, but there's no shortage of it. We simply don't hear much of the selfless because those prepared to sacrifice their own comfort for others don't, by nature, seek attention.
Volunteers who go out into the night with mobile soup kitchens, the legions prepared to stand between disaster and salvation in country fire brigades, the neighbour who drops by unbidden to offer solace and assistance to those afflicted by illness, loneliness, age or poverty, the small groups formed here and there to help families exhausted by tending the endless requirements of a disabled child, the modest citizen who joins a service organisation."
As leaders of our schools, we are in a privileged position and opportunity to develop the ethos of our learning communities - one which can cultivate service to others. As leaders we can draw inspiration from the work of Robert Greenleaf who coined the phrase "Servant Leadership" in an essay The Servant as Leader in 1970.
Such was the impact of that essay that Peter Senge was quoted as saying "For many years, I simply told people not to waste their time reading all the other managerial leadership books. 'If you are really serious about the deeper territory of true leadership,' I would say, 'read Greenleaf'." In that essay Green leaf said:
"The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."
"The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"
In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, Robert K. Greenleaf articulated what is often called the "credo." He said:
"This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them."
In a culture increasingly characterized by 'me' and 'i', the educational leader's credo is to model "i serve".
Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership