By Muhammad Hameem (3C), Ramgopal Venkateswaran (3C) and Teo Yao Neng (1M)

It’s a familiar scene by now: you walk up to those glass doors, push them open and take off your shoes. You cross over to the no-shoes zone to your familiar Gryphon’s Lair (GL) prefect (perhaps even to collect this copy of Rafflesian Times). And then you look up to face a Rafflesian wearing white shoes, shorts and an ordinary RI badge: in short, a Year 2.

Is something wrong? Definitely not. One needs no more than to look at the school’s motto to see why. Thinker, leader, pioneer. Of course, a sharp ear during assemblies also helps. This year, the school has implemented a new initiative for the Year 2s: The Leadership Experience and Training Course, or, in short, the LET. In the words of Mr Paul Lim, the former Year 1–4 Head of Department (HOD) of Character and Leadership Development, ‘[the programme’s] objective is to allow the Year 2s the opportunity to explore their own leadership.’

Designed as part of the school’s existing leadership development framework, the LET primarily serves as a platform for them to gain exposure in areas such as leading cheers, planning projects and serving in the Gryphon’s Lair (the Year 1–4 students’ lounge). In addition to this, they are introduced to the RIPB and allowed to ‘shadow’ prefects. The LET would then conceivably pave the way for Year 3s to develop their leadership if they choose to take on any leadership position, as prefects, Peer Support Leaders (PSLs) or Student Leaders (SLs) in general such as being CCA leaders (CCALs).

From left: Neilsen Chan (2T), Christoph Chong (2G) and Ivan Tang (2D) are part of the LET programme
From left: Neilsen Chan (2T), Christoph Chong (2G) and Ivan Tang (2D) are part of the LET programme

Many aspiring Year 2s have since signed up, earning themselves the informal nickname of ‘LET-ers’. Besides being behind counters attending to the maintenance and running of the Gryphon’s Lair, one may also spot these LET-ers in action in the morning as they perform other tasks such as distributing ‘Colour your World with Words’ short stories, dealing with latecomers and being attached to classes on the Raffles Square in what LET-er Ivan Tang (2D) described as being ‘guided prefect duty’. During the National Day celebrations, they could also be seen facilitating the game booths alongside the prefects.

Although this does seem to give them experience in conducting school events and taking initiative, yet, inevitably, one starts to question whether it really provides them with the experience to lead. And in this, we are faced with another pressing question—does it aim to bring out the leader within or simply supply more manpower to aid the prefects in running their duties?

Taking a step back, let us first clarify what we mean by leadership. The school’s Character and Leadership Education (CLE) curriculum offers an apt definition: ‘Leadership is the art of mobilising others to want to struggle for a shared aspiration’.

PSLs help to guide the Year 1s, starting from the Orientation camp, to work towards a common vision (the past years’ Orientation themes of Spiritus Audent—the spirit of adventure, Chroma—unity in diversity, or Lodestar—the guiding light, for example) and the RIPB helps to improve the school environment in a variety of ways—yet it isn’t as immediately apparent what the role of an LET-er is.

At first glance, the LET might seem to be a means of spotting talents for consideration for prefectorial duty in the future or a form of training to prepare students for the demands of prefectship, given the close association between the LET and the RIPB.

Although the LET may initially sound like a viable method of talent-spotting, being a prefect surely isn’t simply about sitting behind a counter in the Gryphon’s Lair and monitoring students in the morning for assembly. The LET in the first place is not meant to be an alternate body of leadership but a means of providing the Year 2s with more experience.

A prefect in RI, for example, is not just an exemplar in behaviour, but he organises many activities, events and platforms for interaction, communication as well as bonding. For many of our school events, we see prefects hard at work, whether upfront or behind-the-scenes and they toil very hard in order to make school life a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, since a LET-er helps in the execution and possibly the planning stage of school events and activities, it may be hard sometimes to see the significance of this role in the wider scheme of things. And the reason for this is that there isn’t a concrete connection established between LET-ers and the school, especially with the mediation through the RIPB. An essential facet of being a leader is, after all, connecting to one’s peers. This is an important aspect of leadership that the LET-ers do not seem to be exposed to as much; they are sometimes seen as merely being attached to the RIPB but do not in themselves establish any individual connections with the RI student populace.

So, does the LET really empower Year 2s in pursuing leadership opportunities or is it merely a cover for more manpower here in school? Empower or manpower; that is the question.

Perhaps this supposed dichotomy between ‘true’ leadership and filling up the needs of manpower could very well be a false dilemma. Leadership cannot be divorced from its requisite of learning how to follow first and humbly accepting work delegations before stepping up to take the lead. As Aristotle notes: ‘He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.’ This is echoed in the belief of Christoph Chong, a LET-er of class 2G, that ‘we should lead others in serving them’.

And as Mr Lim has said, many other initiatives and programmes have already been in place to shape Rafflesian leaders in the school. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, one’s leadership journey should first start off learning how to serve, which is a pivotal aspect of becoming a leader. In this respect, the LET-ers exemplify the ideal of servant leadership by performing the ‘low-skilled’ tasks that are essential for the everyday running of the school.

Arguably, the LET could provide valuable exposure for Year 2s before they bring their leadership journey to the next level at the Year 3 mark (or at the end of Year 2, for prospective prefect candidates). It should also be noted that despite the apparent link between the LET and the RIPB, there is not meant to be any direct nor necessary correlation between both other than the fact that LET-ers were attached to prefects.

Christoph, who was a prefect candidate like his fellow LET-er Ivan, saw the LET as a means to ‘help one to decide whether or not to run for prefectship’ rather than a mere training ground for the RIPB. In fact, Christoph regarded this link with the RIPB as natural since ‘prefects are the leaders in school’; and after all, who else better to emulate but the role-models in our prefects? He described the prefects to whom the LET-ers were attached to as ‘ideal exemplars who were genuinely helping to hone [their] skills’, and thus who not only provided them the opportunity to fully experience a wide range of such roles and responsibilities within the school but who also brought out the necessary skills that come along with it. Furthermore, it can be seen that prefects themselves are able to develop their leadership by taking responsibility for these LET-ers.

At the same time, this does not mean that there is no room for improvement. Perhaps, the LET-ers could be exposed to working with not just the RIPB but also with the larger school body to develop a more holistic and well-rounded idea of what it means to be a leader (besides merely managing the running of events). They can then choose to take up full-fledged leadership positions with a better lens through which to formulate their own individual styles of leading.

In terms of the programme itself, Ivan also suggested including more hands-on activities, like planning for the game booths for school National Day celebrations independently instead of ‘just doing mechanical stuff and following prefects’. Christoph seconded this opinion, adding that it would be a more enjoyable and experiential way to develop leadership.

The LET, overall, is a very meaningful initiative by the CLE department; however, much can be learnt from its first year of running to add (or cut out) more elements which could enhance the experience of the coming batches of LET-ers. Mr Lim himself remarked, that ‘all said, it was a pretty good try and we are seeing how to do it better next year’.

After all, do we not remember Mr Han from The Karate Kid (2010) putting his student Dre Parker through the menial task of repeatedly putting on and taking off his jacket before finally teaching him the art of kungfu? Dre would only appreciate this later on upon his triumph in the tournament, but his initial frustration would be akin to that of a LET-er who has yet to grasp the bigger picture of leadership. Appreciating how service forms the basis of leadership is the first step to becoming a leader.