Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thinking about servant leadership

As a young professional, I was always slightly annoyed by the fact that a person’s age was closely related to the agreed perception about their capacity to lead.  It seemed to me that merely getting old opened the door to opportunities to be heard.  As a young woman who was constantly filled with new ideas and creative projects, I was frustrated by being constantly contained and restrained.  It is a marker of my youth that I was always racing to get through it, so I could reach the point where I was able to enact my ideas.  You could infer that I was lacking a little in the ‘presence’ department with this focus on future rather than in the moment.  Yes indeed. 

But here I am.  I turned 41 this week and I have fulfilled the assumptions of the hierarchy about the need for a link between age and leadership.  I seem to have run into it, just by being around long enough and being willing. As a result, the questions that have been distracting me since I turned 40 have been to do with leadership.  I have been studying the idea in different ways – participating in a Women in Leadership forum with colleagues from across the university, reading endless books, analyzing examples of leadership offered by friends and world leaders.  And of course, I have been talking about it incessantly with colleagues, students, family and friends. I notice that I have also been speaking to this topic in my previous blogs where I have discussed power and love, the power inherent in the use of the word ‘client’, and not least, changing the world.

What surprises me most about the experience of combining ageing and leadership is the lack of desire I have for it.  Even as I was questioning the validity of the relationship between age and power, I knew that I didn’t aspire to have power over others.  I wanted to be in relationship with power so that my ideas would have the possibility of being explored.  I wanted to be able to go to leadership and suggest things and have them heard, if not always accepted.  Over time, I came to identify as being a 2IC (second in charge), initially in small projects, and later in bigger systems.

Although my journey seems like a natural progression in retrospect, when leadership was finally thrust upon me from outside it took all my strength not to run away.  This was as true in my experience of parenting (which I see as a form of leadership) as it was professionally.  Despite my belief that I have an important contribution to make, I have had to come to terms with taking responsibility alongside that.  I had to stop speeding in my car when there was a baby in the backseat, and I have had to become more carefully attuned to the system that I work in and alert to the need to stand in my power for the benefit of others, even more so than for representing my own ideas.  I had no idea it would be like this when I was observing the phenomenon from my youthful perspective.

In all of my grappling to come to terms with this, the concept of servant leadership has had the greatest appeal for me.  This notion has been introduced in the contemporary literature by Robert Greenleaf, and I remember how my whole body resonated with it as I read about it in Joseph Jaworski’s writings, not least because he describes coming from a place of youthful self-absorption and then recognizing how important it was to fulfill on his commitment to others.  And then this morning I finished reading Paul Johnson’s book, “Jesus: A biography from a believer”. 

The form of leadership that Jesus embodied was truly the most inspirational, and even if you don’t choose to believe in any greater field of life than your own self, as Paul Johnson says, there is no doubt that as an individual his life was striking.  Jesus anticipated many of the issues that we continue to struggle with today and offered a way of being that was true leadership.  He never abused his power.  He always listened. He took time out to be alone and be nourished by his connection with a greater force.  He always recognized the importance of the ‘little people’ of his time even though the social conditions gave absolutely no power to them – women would be drowned in the river if they tried to leave their husbands, but their husbands could divorce them if the dinner was over-cooked!  He advocated for mercy and grace, rather than judgment. He enjoyed the company of others and recognized that all great things come to us through our relationships.  The list goes on, but what is striking is that the way of being that Jesus embodied would still be considered as great leadership to this day, and we still need it – though the historical descriptions in the text did remind me that we have come a long way.

It was truly inspiring to read a historical account of the life of a leader and to be reminded of how important it is to aspire to be as good as we can be.  As Greenleaf says, “the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” ( I’ve seen many of you enact this kind of behavior and been the grateful recipient of it on many occasions.  Whatever our motivations, and no matter what direction we turn as we endeavor to live this way (management, parenting, musicking …), the concept of leading through living our life as best we can has enormous appeal to me.  I still have plenty of work to do in making it so, of course.  But I feel happy to be one who is striving, falling over, getting back up, and striving again.  And there is enormous joy to be gained in studying those who have been truly magnificent.