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Section 2. Servant Leadership: Accepting and Maintaining the Call of Service

Example 1: Interview with Ann Liprie-Spence, Director, Servant Leadership Center of the Southwest, McMurry University (Abilene, TX)

Ms. Liprie-Spence is the Director of the Servant Leadership Center of the Southwest at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. Here, she talks about their program and the meaning of servant-leadership.

McMurry is so special; it's a small [Methodist] liberal arts college. We have about 1400 students. It's hard to say what makes us unique. If you're here, you can feel it. It's a very caring atmosphere.

[A professor] said, "We've got to find some way to build our niche, because we are a very special place." He came back from a conference that had some information on servant leadership. This [was] in 1990. We devised a program in Servant Leadership, sought funding and then got our program under way.

One large component of our program is the course, "Concepts and Techniques in Servant Leadership." For the first two years, the class was free and students were encouraged to take it by invitation. After the grant ended, students were given the opportunity to enroll in the course. The last three years, enrollment has just soared.

What we do in the course is use the philosophy of Robert K. Greenleaf. We try to instill in our students [the idea] that the best leaders are those that serve others. By leading them, you're also serving them, and all of their concerns should be taken into consideration when you make decisions. We try to instill throughout the semester that everything you do is for the greater good of others. I think sometimes in society, the examples of leadership that some students see are examples where people have gained prestige and power because of more selfish purposes.

What we do on Mondays is lecture on the principles of leadership. We look at topics such as conflict resolution, team building, and time management. A second session each week is a small group seminar/discussion led by upper class students who have been specially trained in the servant leadership concept and in group dynamics.

One of the things we do the first day of class is ask them to list the characteristics of a servant. Then, we ask them to list the characteristics of a leader. Very seldom is there anything that is the same. Then we start trying to talk about what it means. To some people that term is a turn-off until they really understand it. You don't want these macho guys being called a servant leader--What would their friends think!--until they really understand what it means.

At the beginning of the semester I get eight agencies to come on campus, they talk about their agency, and we have a specific project lined up with each. The students pick a team that they're going to work with by picking an agency.

[So] their team is based on the fact that they all wanted to work with Abilene State School or with Habitat for Humanity or whatever. Then on their own each individual must give 30 hours to that project. They have to keep a journal. What we think is most important [is that] they reflect on what they learn in that project on a daily basis. Whenever they go out and they look at what they learned in class, can they relate those things? Did any of those issues come up?

They go through a training session where they're given a broad view of the agency. Then, the students look for need and for areas where they can be of value and of service to that agency. They make proposals; they take them back to the agency. If the proposals are approved then they have to find the means to carry them out using all the leadership principles [they have learned].

We want them to realize that need to go out there and make a difference, look for things to change and try to propose changes. Look for ways to do things rather than just walk in and say, "What do you have for me to do today?" or, "We want to see what we can do. Suggest ideas ways we can make things better, things that we might do that you hadn't thought about."

Some of their ideas have been shot down. We tell them welcome to the real world, that problem creates an opportunity for you to get back together and create another idea. So I can't tell you it's always roses. Their ideas are not always met with, "This is a wonderful idea, get started, what can we do for you." Sometimes they're told, "It's great but you're on your own. We don't have any resources. "

After they [finish] the class I send students a letter inviting them to be part of what we call the servant leadership mentors. So they get to extend their leadership beyond the class. The mentors go out and interview agencies because they know what it's like to be a team member. If the mentors say this project won't work, we don't do it. Part of the idea behind servant leadership is listening to others. I'd be less than honest with them if I say come with me and I ignored what they had to say. They learn by doing.

We've got a saying that we put in our co-curricular transcripts. It says: We believe in demonstrating our commitment to human potential by adding spiritual values, leadership and service to human kind. We've created a program believed to be unique in college setting: McMurry University Servant Leadership Program.

Here's what we tell the students is most important. We say the program is designed to equip our students with a firm moral and ethical foundation, one which they can make sense of the dilemmas they will face. Ones from which they can become leaders who give something back to the world.

The year before last on our campus alone faculty, staff and students gave 24,000 hours in one year of community service. That's on a campus of 1,400 students. I think a lot of it extends from once they see [this approach] as a way of life. They actually go out there and experience it and see how good it makes them feel. That's comment I get all the time, "I never knew how good it would make me feel, to truly live a life as a servant leader."

Example 2: Interview with Nancy Larner, Program Director at the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.

Nancy Larner is Program Director at the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Here, she talks about the organization and their philosophy

The Greenleaf Center is [an international] non-profit organization. We are interested in trying to foster more caring and humane organizations. We work with health care, higher education systems, religious organizations, for profit/non-profit organizations--basically the whole gamut. We don't try to focus in one area--we try to reach out to everybody.

Our logo is the Mobius strip. The whole idea behind the Mobius strip and how it signifies servant-leadership is that there is not a beginning or an end. It all flows together--leading lends itself to serving, serving lends itself to leading. Servant-leadership is a hyphenated word because leading and serving are on equal levels.

Servant leadership is really a practical philosophy. It supports people who wish to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. And it's not necessarily people who are in a position of power. Anybody can lead in the servant-leadership philosophy. What it takes is a lot integrity, trust, caring, and also some vulnerability. That is, you aren't the only one making the decisions. It's not about having all the answers. Servant leadership encourages a lot of collaboration, trust, listening and the ethical use of power.

It's kind of like [in jazz] where it's somebody else's turn to play their instrument and do an improv, or if somebody has an idea on how to take the music a little bit further. You let them go. They might not be the leader of the band but they've got a great idea and they're going with it. It's very subtle. It's hard to say exactly when you step down as leader and let someone else take over.

Robert Greenleaf is the gentleman who wrote about this philosophy back in the 1960s. His whole idea was that you take people where they spend the most time, whether it's in a religious institution or at work or whatever, and you teach or try to foster these basic principles. His hopes were that these would transfer into community at large so that you do create or you try to create a more caring and humane society.

Some people really get it from reading the material [written by Greenleaf]. Saying "Oh my goodness, this is how I've been feeling all of my life and I didn't know that there are people and organizations out here that really foster this sort of leadership." In some ways, that's a transformation, in the sense that you really feel like there's hope out there, that organizations can be run in a more humane way.

Are there things people can do to become servant-leaders or to become better servant-leaders?

People look for the bullet points or the ten step program to become servant leaders. And the fact of the matter is it's just working on your people skills. It's not so much OK, I need to do X,Y, and Z and then I'm a servant leader. It is more honing skills like empathy and listening, and trying to work with consensus and persuasion rather than coercion. I think that everybody can be a servant leader if they choose to.

If someone came up to you and said, "I would like to start using the principles of servant-leadership in my work or personal life." What advice would you give them?

Begin to be just a little more caring and supportive of your colleagues, perhaps by showing interest in their lives outside of work, or, if somebody comes to you and they're really bogged down with work, maybe you help them out a little bit. People start to feel a sense of empathy and trust, and maybe they will then treat their co-workers in the same manner. Servant-leadership can begin anywhere at any time. The choice is up to the individual.

Jenette Nagy