Even living rooms are converted into soap boxes, which is where I found myself several weeks ago. It’s an affair that can only happen in New Hampshire. Standing room only in a neighbor’s home. A presidential candidate just feet from you trying as hard as they might to win your vote. It’s a national event on a hyper-local stage. A stump speech, a handshake, and then they were off, on to the next venue to convince another voter.
If you’re lucky enough to live in New Hampshire, you’re front and center of the modern American election. But, for many Americans, you’re not shaking hands with candidates or attending town halls. The campaign is distant, perhaps most visible in a news article or social media post. In small town Holderness, however, you get to meet who's running for office -- from President of the United States to School President.
And while we're surrounded by the near-constant activity of the electoral process, Holderness School approaches its school elections differently. As Head of School Phil Peck likes to say, we’re countercultural. There are no campaign slogans, or signs, or stump speeches -- in fact, it’s a school taboo to do so. Since 1950, the Holderness School community has come together each April to judge all students on the basis of their character.
Dated May 23, 1950, there’s a framed copy of a letter written by Terry Weathers ’51 that sits outside the Head of School’s office that states, “the council decided that… on this ballot, all students are judged on the basis of leadership, dependability, initiative, and fairness. The two members of the next year’s sixth form with the top rating on this ballot are automatically the president and the vice president for next year.”
We celebrate the 70th anniversary of such an election this year. And in that 70 years, the only change to this electoral framework has been the inclusion of empathy. A radical move perhaps, but one that brings deep understanding, kindness, and service sharply into focus. We define leadership as each person’s journey to serve and empower others, and we see these leadership characteristics as vital in developing servant leaders. So now, the leadership criteria that all community members -- from student to Head of School -- are evaluated on is Fairness, Initiative, Dependability, and Empathy.
A Holderness student who is fair is one who is honest, just, impartial, and unbiased; one who is open to others and listens to conflicting viewpoints before making judgments, one who is intent upon justice and impartiality.
A Holderness student with initiative is one who has the ability to see what ought to be done and to originate solutions for problems; one who is willing to undertake appropriate action to speak up and offer ideas; one who does not hold back waiting for someone else to act.
A Holderness student with dependability is one who will do what is right, even at some personal cost; one who will give active and consistent support to the community. Other Holderness students can rely on this person to be trustworthy.
A Holderness student who is empathetic demonstrates kindness and concern for others. This student puts themselves in another person’s place, exhibiting caring.
What is most remarkable about this process is the outcome. In the time that Holderness School has been a co-educational institution, women have represented 50 percent of the top four leadership positions in the school. Peer schools, unable to break that glass ceiling, have had to adopt male and female co-presidents in order to manufacture representation. Holderness, however, has three females in the top four student-leader positions just this year.
Commenting on Holderness School’s leadership process, University of North Carolina Political Science Professor Andrew Reynolds says “It’s not like anything that exists in the modern democratic universe.” Reynolds, a leading mind in electoral politics, says Holderness School remains a representative democracy, “it’s just more sophisticated than regular elections.”
Let that sink in. A school of 280 students, with a system of governance -- designed by teenagers -- that is more sophisticated than most modern democracies. No campaigns, no debates, just an emphasis on character.
The beauty of Holderness is that everyone -- students and employees -- gets to know everyone. Come every April, we can all comfortably gather as a community and evaluate each other on our four leadership criteria. And, while the outcome is an affirmation of how individuals move throughout the Holderness universe, growth is key to this process; conversations and lessons learned about what it means to be a leader -- with or without a given title -- and a member of a community begin almost immediately after the results are shared.
It’s no surprise that we are living in a world with an empathy deficit. A quick scan of front pages and trending topics reveals that ours is a world in dire need of understanding, discourse, and civility. All too often, we are focused on making sure that our particular side is right, yelling our position over one another and refusing to realize a middle ground, let alone acknowledge that another side exists. In emphasizing fairness, initiative, dependability, and empathy, Holderness School has developed a timeless leadership system where character triumphs over hollow talking points. In such a process, Holderness School develops people the world most needs.