We were sitting in the headmaster’s room at one of the 427 government schools in Puducherry, and had just finished explaining why we would not be able to finish the sweets and savouries he had graciously offered, and which he had probably bought with his own money (so our colleagues told us).

Then he offered us water in clean steel glasses. Our instinctive response would have been a polite “no, thank you", shaped as much by years of being careful with the water one drinks while travelling in our country, as by not having seen many schools, government or private, with clean drinking water.

“Sir, they drink only mineral water," our colleague who works in Puducherry told the headmaster in an undertone. It was an embarrassing moment. Yet, the headmaster’s face glowed, and he said: “Please drink, this is mineral water, sir!"

Our disbelief must have been apparent, for the headmaster took the trouble of explaining the “mineral water". He told us that he had bought a reverse osmosis (RO) plant, out of the meagre discretionary fund he had at his disposal over a two-year period, so that the school could have safe drinking water. His pride in his “RO plant" was evident, and we drank the water.

On slight prodding from us, the headmaster further explained how he tries to make sure the schoolchildren take the “RO water" back home for drinking, for themselves and their families. He does this because the children all come from the surrounding hutments (“slums" in our language), and these have no access to clean drinking water. Inevitably, that causes diseases which affect, among other things, the children’s attendance at school.

It’s a simple initiative. Yet, in the current Indian context, as in the past, where most children lug water bottles to school or struggle with poor quality water or even thirst, this is certainly a wondrous reversal. This simple act can be called leadership.

But before we get to the key issue of leadership, let’s dwell on two other interesting facets that this experience brings up unobtrusively.

The first is obvious, but we don’t often consider it adequately: Education cannot be viewed in glorious isolation, cut off from what happens in the family and the local community. Bad water will cause disease, which will affect attendance (among other things) and that, in turn, will hurt education. There are countless such dynamics that affect and are affected by education.

Some of these inextricably linked dimensions are governance, nutrition, sanitation, livelihood, and so on. In reality, when we try to improve education, we willy-nilly work at this complex systemic level. Educational interventions designed with this reality in mind have greater chances of causing an impact. While this is quite obvious, it is surprisingly missing from a lot of actual interventions in education—in practice, if not in theory.

The second and related issue is one of ownership: The school must own the community and the community must own the school. This is a potentially powerful relationship. In many of our villages and small towns, the school is a key formal institution. Its quality and effectiveness depend directly on how closely the community is engaged with it. Equally, the influence of the institution on the community depends on this engagement. Many state governments have attempted to activate this relationship through “school committees" comprising community members, with only partial success. But as with millions of other things in India, a partial success with this should only be an exhortation to do more, not less.

Let’s now go back to the issue of leadership and initiative.

When we work with our education system, trying to improve its quality, we focus on the infrastructure, the teachers, the pedagogy, the curriculum, the assessment methods and a host of other things. And each of these must change and improve. However, we tend to focus inadequately on the issue of leadership in schools. Any good leader transforms things despite constraints. This is true for a school leader too. It is also is a point of substantial leverage to change and improve our schools: one we should invest more of our energy in.

The headmaster who took the “RO plant" initiative is just another ordinary actor in everyday India. He faces the same constraints as thousands of others in similar positions. It’s the same frugal budgets, the same “non-responsive" system, the same thankless job. But that’s just one way of looking at it. As our headmaster shows, there is another way—one that leads to action. He is special because he took the initiative and acted. He is not unique in this; it’s just that I had the good fortune of meeting him. We should try to help many more such school leaders become special. This can cause the most sweeping of improvements in schools.

Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com

To read Anurag Behar’s previous articles, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere