My experience of leadership as service

I was recently reminded of the notion of ‘servant leadership’ as it exists within Christian theology – the classic imagery being the way Jesus washed his disciples’ feet – and have since felt challenged to relate this notion to my own personal experience of leadership. I’ve been fascinated by the thought that leadership, in its many forms, can most effectively be an exercise in service.

The idea came up as I discussed the role of the youth group in our church. The girl I was chatting with remarked that the key role of a youth group ‘leader’ was in essence to be a servant to the kids. She didn’t elaborate, feeling I understood the Christian notion of leadership as service; but I would add that this service is built up in practice by the leaders doing everything from actually serving (i.e. dinner!) to educating the kids, shaping youth group sessions to suit their requirements/desires, and sharing the Gospel message with them.

The youth group leader role is clearly largely facilitative – it is a role that enables the young people to come together, looks after logistics, provides direction to their study and time together. In that sense it’s fairly simple to see how, even outside a Christian framing, it is an act of ‘service’.

The question for me is whether leaders can effectively act out of a desire to serve in another context?

First stop – Google. If you look for “leadership as service” you tend to pull up a lot of school programs where students are taught to be “leaders” (i.e. ‘well rounded individuals’) through “service” (some community-based activity) – ‘building leadership through service’. What I am thinking more is how leadership is an act of service. To find this sort of material via Google, you need to add the word “humility” to the search – you then get a lot more results that are focused on the idea of leaders serving (also predominantly Christian literature, ‘humility’ being a word that appears frequently in this discourse).

So armed with the focal point of humble leaders and how they serve in that role, time for the second stop – some personal reflection. I considered my role in Room to Read. For the last 18 months, I’ve been working to establish the Brisbane Chapter of Room to Read – a framework within which volunteers in cities around the world can contribute to the work of the organisation, primarily by conducting fundraising activities. It’s taken a lot of tacking back and forth, changes in direction and strategy, but finally I think we have an organisation into which can be built some sustainability (for me, this is the ultimate win!).

From very early, I became the unofficial “Chapter Leader” – largely out of my initiation of our first meetings. Interestingly when I went along to our very first meeting (me + 4 others I had never met but connected with via email), I had intended to act largely as a facilitator – to connect, to initiate connections, and to stay vaguely involved – I had not intended to walk away with an event mapped out and half-organised, and a Chapter in the making.

I realised that this, perhaps, was the beginning of my ‘servant leadership’ in Room to Read. Actually taking a key driving role was not on my agenda – I came along with an intention to help others to fulfil their desire to contribute. My motivation was outwardly-focused, centred on helping others to engage and ultimately to support Room to Read, which fits so perfectly within their Chapter model. I feel that this motivation has remained with me ever since.

There is obviously the element of service that comes from volunteering your time to support an organisation that provides education to those who would otherwise go without. I see this as the school model – building leaders through service. But I see my leadership role as being guided more by my desire to provide opportunities for others to engage with an issue that matters to them.

It would be untrue to suggest that I’ve never considered how my role in Room to Read may benefit me in the long run – the experience gained, the connections made and so on. An ongoing challenge for me is distinguishing myself from the Chapter -there is a perception that I am Room to Read in Brisbane and maintaining humility while also appreciating the sentiment people show can be difficult. Room to Read has done many things for me – I recently had the opportunity to spend 5 days in India visiting Room to Read projects, which is an experience I won’t soon forget. Room to Read was in part the impetus for me to leave a career in the corporate world to pursue something far more meaningful – and for this, I will be forever grateful. I only hope that in leading the Brisbane group I can provide similar meaningful opportunities to others.

I recently had a potential volunteer come to me who ‘confessed’ that despite being in her mid-30s she had never volunteered. I assured her she was not alone! She has proven already that she is an incredibly capable, willing and good-hearted person who was just looking for the right opportunity. The Chapter provided that and I see establishing that framework as a type of service.

There is a third stop in this line of thinking – which I want to explore further during this year. If I am truly trying to be a leader that serves, how do I translate this into action in my role? How does it shape interactions with the team? How does it impact my thinking on empowerment, trust, delegation, succession, training? How do I embody humility in my role as a leader? Can I still be an effective leader (in the sense of raising money, achieving the other goals for Room to Read) in this capacity? Many questions for another post!

I’m interested to know of other situations where you see leadership as service – and in particular how this plays out in practice. Because I believe that, in respect to Room to Read, my success as a leader depends in great part on my ability to be humble, to put the needs of the team first (which requires first knowing what their needs and desires are) and to stay focused on my central motivation. No small challenge, on which I’ll be sure to report again!

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