Twenty seven years ago I was trying to figure out where my faith journey was going and what I would do about living differently.

Brevard, NC was the place I was calling home at the time.  As a faith formation coordinator in my church, I was coming into contact with several other middle aged folks from different religions that were hungry for some kind of renewal.  A group of us began gathering on a regular basis in each other’s homes for study, prayer and conversation.  We soon discovered that people were meeting in nearby Hendersonville under the direction of Bennett J Sims, a retired Episcopal Bishop. Bennett and his wife Mary had moved their Institute for Servant Leadership from Atlanta in 1988. We joined with the Hendersonville group and began classes to prepare ourselves for servant leadership.

Robert K. Greenleaf began the modern day Servant leadership movement in a 1970 essay The Servant as Leader.  It has become “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” His concepts, ideas and writings were seen as controversial, lofty and unrealistic at first.  But soon, the religious and secular worlds began to embrace these principals.  Many have found that Servant Leadership has the power to transform human experience.  Greenleaf’s work and Bennett Sims direction led the twelve of us from Brevard to attend two resident workshops at The School of Servant Leadership at the Festival Center in Washington, DC and ministries of The Church of The Savior.  The teaching and experiential group processes under the gentle mentorship of Gordon Cosby changed each of us in profound ways.

The Wisdom of Gordon Cosby

I will never forget Gordon’s words to us when we first met.  We had filed into a room where he was reclining in a chair.  When we were seated he met each one of us in an intentional loving gaze.  In a few minutes he said; “Welcome to the Festival Center and to your Nation’s Capital.  We have been waiting for you…for a long, long time. All of eternity has conspired to bring you here right now.”

Gordon Cosby’s greeting sums up the message of Servant Leadership for me.  Though it is certainly a philosophy which has generally prescribed practices, the welcoming of this well known, great man expressed its essence in the language of unconditional love.  He shared his vision of Christ who serves the poor in community while empowering each other.  He taught that power comes from the bottom up rather than top down.  He proposed that each of us find a passion which might lead to conquering and healing poverty, racism, addiction and disease.

Servant Leadership Goes Mainstream

Servant Leadership is the future of our future according to Anthony Perez.  It has been expressed in many ways and applied in many contexts. Some of the most well-known advocates include Joyce Hollyday, William C. Pollard, Jim Wallis, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, M. Scott Peck, Ian Fuhr, Margaret Wheatley, Ann McGee-Cooper, Larry Spears, and Kent Keith.  Servant Leadership Institutes have been established across the entire country in community based programs from Greensboro, NC to Austin, TX to Carlsbad, CA and are attended by thousands of people from all walks of life. The bottom line is that satisfaction and great results come with the applications of servant leadership.

Larry Spears 10 Core Characteristics of Servant Leadership

  1. Listening ~ Servant leadership requires leaders to listen to other people, not just be good at communication and decision-making. Listening is about focusing on what is being said and using this information for guiding the group towards objectives. An effective leader should also identify the things that are left unsaid, as well as the inner voices.
  2. Empathy ~ Listening increases an ability to empathize. Since the focus of servant leadership is to serve others it necessitates an ablity to accept and recognize the individual values and feelings people have. A servant leader should be able to love and understand others without prejudice.
  3. Healing ~ Servant leadership emphasizes the emotional health of an individual, together with mental and physical wellbeing. A servant leader should focus on his or her potential to heal one’s own self and others creating a greater possibility of achieving wholeness.
  4. Awareness ~ Servant leadership requires awareness, both in terms of general awareness and self-awareness. Self-awareness in particular requires the leader to see their emotions and behaviors in the context of how it affects the rest of the community or group. Through self-awareness, you become better at noticing what the people around you are doing and fix problems quicker.
  5. Persuasion ~ Servant leadership doesn’t rely on authority to get things done. Instead, the concept uses persuasion in order to make a decision. The servant leader seeks for consensus rather than compliance, which is perhaps the biggest difference to traditional authoritarian models. Personal relationships are developed rather than exerting positions of power.
  6. Conceptualization ~ A servant leader is able to conceive solutions to problems, which are not presently there. This kind of conceptualization therefore requires the leader look beyond simple day-to-day realities. In a traditional leadership model, the leader’s focus is often on short-term operational objectives. But a servant leader must look beyond these and conceptualize issues that might not even be on the horizon.
  7. Foresight ~ Another relating point to conceptualization is the concept of foresight. Servant leadership requires the ability to foresee likely outcomes through the understanding of the past. There are three key points to foresight in leadership:
  • The ability to learn from past experiences
  • The ability to identify what is currently happening
  • The ability to understand the consequences of specific decisions
  1. Stewardship ~ Stewardship in servant leadership relates to taking responsibility of your actions and those of the community, group or team. The main assumption is to commit to serve the needs of others first. Not only is the organization holding their trust in the leader, the whole organization is to serve the wider community. It’s not about controlling the actions, but to rather allow yourself to be accountable.
  2. Commitment to the growth of people ~ Servant leadership model focuses on the intrinsic value people offer. Therefore, the aim of a servant leader is to help people realize their potential beyond just the ability to perform well. Servant leadership requires the commitment to help people realize their potential, as well as to support it.
  3. Building community ~ Servant leadership relies on the creation of a community and a sense of togetherness within the organization. Greenleaf wrote in his essay, the best way to achieve community might stem from smaller groups. He said, “Achieving many small-scale communities, under the shelter that is best given by bigness, may be the secret of synergy in large institutions”.

Chaplain Programs Embrace Servant Leadership

In January of 2018, The Annual Law Enforcement Management Conference included a session called The Positive Power of Servant Leadership. It was recognized that the Chaplain program is an example of Servant Leadership in action.  Those who serve, often without monetary compensation, offer comfort and counsel in the most painful of circumstances.  Their acts of mercy and kindness relieve LEO’s of dealing with crisis intervention, death notices, and hospital or home visitations (to mention only a few of their duties).  They provide the human face of police departments. That humanity allows the Chaplain to build trusting relationships which nobody else can do.  When Chaplains are given the opportunity to receive Servant Leadership training, their empowering work takes on deeper dimensions of humility and vulnerability.  They become more comfortable in making mistakes and more easily accept setbacks. The qualities of a good servant leader are the ones most often applied to Chaplains.  They are as follow;

  • Open-mindedness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Helpfulness
  • Selflessness
  • Awareness
  • Accountability

Chaplain Harold Elliott’s long-standing Servant Leadership program has been widely acclaimed as a model for other departments. The Greenleaf Center has an ongoing program for Chaplain training in Atlanta.

Servant Leaders One and All

Whether we are chaplains, LEO’s, human service providers, educators, corporate executives or anyone else for that matter, we are called to some kind of leadership in our families, workplaces and communities. When we recognize our role of service in that context, incredible changes take place. Lives are enriched through the building of relationships with both those being served and those who are serving. I have come to believe that servant leadership is a powerful movement which humbly embraces powerlessness. This is an epiphany which can shape and transform every relationship in our lives.

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