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BIS LIVES Blog

Learning about Leadership with Fulton Sheen

fulton sheen

I work on the border of Thailand and Myanmar in a small town called Ranong. Here, Burmese migrants come across to Thailand to work in the fishing and other industries. The work is dirty, dangerous and demeaning, but the migrants can earn three times as much here in Thailand than they would back in Myanmar.

Poverty and Education

Although Thai law admits all children into the state school system, the reality on the ground is that many migrant children do not access education. Many Burmese parents are poorly educated themselves and they need their children to work to help support the family. They might be able to let the children go to school until age twelve, but beyond that, it’s a struggle. They not only struggle with poverty, but also with the discrimination that goes with being a migrant worker in a foreign land. Exploitation is rife, as are diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Leadership

So what has Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and leadership got to do with all of this? Well, here I am, managing a Burmese Learning Centre, one of about ten small schools trying to provide the migrant children with education options. Our ninety-five students range in age between twelve and eighteen, so we are catering for high-school aged children who would otherwise be working in fish or charcoal factories. I have been here in Thailand for nearly two years, but only took on the management of the Learning Centre last October.

My first few months in the management role were very challenging. Our staff are Burmese, Thai, and English speaking. While many have two or three of these languages, I have only English. Hierarchy, position, and age are very important in both Thai and Burmese cultures whereas my own culture values cooperation, teamwork, and flat leadership structures. I’m also a foreigner, and this has the potential to fuel distrust.

Because of these considerations, and despite having held leadership positions in my native New Zealand, I was very reluctant to take on leadership here and “exert authority” in a culture where authority has often been oppressive. I did not (and do not) want to become some kind of dictator who, because the respect and deference given to managers and leaders, wields and abuses power to achieve my desired outcomes.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen to the Rescue

Around the time I took on this role, I was listening to some recordings of Ven. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen preaching. I was very struck by his advice about authority. Yes, I had been given authority. But it was to be used for service and love.

Over time, I have discovered that my best moments at work are when I can walk around the school and see and hear the students in their classes learning with their teachers. I know that my efforts at timetabling, leading meetings, organising professional development for teachers, and working out the budget (among other things) are enabling this learning to happen.

If I keep the idea of service at the top of my mind, I feel myself relax and really try to listen to what my staff need. Even a trip to the stationary shop becomes an act of service, as it allows the teachers to spend their time on planning and preparation for their classes.

Servant Leadership

Jesus gave us the best image of the servant leader when washing the feet of His disciples. Washing their feet would likely have been a grubby, dusty job. One question I challenge myself with is, “Am I asking my staff to do something I would not also do?”

Are our deadlines for reports and exam marking sensible? Are we having too many meetings? Not enough for good communication to happen?

Leadership involves daily decision-making, both big and small. A leader needs to think about the big picture all the time when presented with requests and questions. An act of service sometimes means serving the wider vision rather than an immediate need or want.

It is in the small daily decisions that the next part of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s message becomes important:

Authority must be exercised because one loves.

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Love in Action

I’m blessed in that I love my students and I want them to have the best education possible. This love “in action” constantly takes me out of my comfort zone.

It means:

  • Smiling, smiling, smiling at my students who I cannot fluently converse with.
  • Trying to listen carefully to each request of staff and students.
  • Following through on student discipline in a spirit of loving correction.
  • Supporting creative staff initiatives that make learning more enjoyable and real even when I’m not sure of a “successful” outcome.
  • Eating lunch with our first year students once a week even though I find it awkward because of the language barrier.
  • Being ready to take students to the medical clinic during or after school hours when parents cannot afford it or have no transport.
  • Taking a break when I need to in order to love myself, too.

Love requires different things of us at different times and in different seasons of our lives. When I leave my apartment in the morning, I sometimes help myself get into the right frame of mind by repeating these words from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: “Authority is for service and love.”

Are you in a leadership position? What does this advice from Venerable Fulton Sheen mean to you?

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Katie Fisher works on the Thailand/Myanmar border with the Catholic mission, Marist Asia Foundation. She is attempting to learn to speak Thai and Burmese and spends her free time reading, listening to podcasts, and trying to stay cool in the tropical heat. You can find out more about her here.

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