Twenty-first century global reality has placed the world’s citizens in a unique position. With the internet comes instant access to information, and social media brings the world right to us. As economic and cultural shifts continue to take place, old models of top-down hierarchies are quickly fading, and a new kind of leadership is needed. While we in general are smarter, more consumer-savvy and less willing to take an authority’s word at face value, we can also feel overwhelmed in light of the sheer amount of information thrown our way, and the pressing immediacy of issues of war, poverty, environment and others. It can be tempting to say, what’s the point? My input won’t make a difference.
I believe we can help bring about change at any level of community. Being of service is one foundational way, yet its impact is often minimized. This is especially true in business and government, although the concept and practice of service in leadership has steadily gained acceptance in this country and beyond since its introduction in 1970 through the writings of Robert K. Greenleaf. Essentially, servant leadership involves a practice of leaders supporting and empowering their work groups or communities in such a way that those individuals grow and transform. It is a stance of leading from behind, of placing others’ needs first in service to the greater mission and purpose of the project.
When needed, the leader steps forward to assert authority, but this is the exception. Building community through respectful, empathic, caring leadership results in individual buy-in and investment in their work or community setting. It’s treating others as we wish to be treated, of trusting them and acknowledging initiative and creativity and leadership.
When you think of servant leaders, who comes to mind? Nelson Mandela? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Mahatma Gandhi?
I would agree with you, and I would then ask, whom do you know closer to home? Who in your life appears to be someone that leads with empathy and regard for others, who makes sure to support others to grow as leaders in their own lives, who comes across as humble, caring, and is a great listener and shows appreciation for the efforts of those around them? If you can identify someone, take a moment to reflect on how you feel in his or her presence. I’m willing to bet you have an experience of feeling your input matters, the leader sees you as a person, the group is thriving with enthusiasm and creativity, and wants to excel and does. Maybe you are such a leader. Everyone feels better through being served and they want to give back. Results include improved bottom line, greater ease in negotiations, better services and products, happier families, and much more.
It makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? Service is about giving without thought of getting something in return. It’s contributing to the sum total of good for all. As human beings, we all instinctively respond positively to such an approach. Notice how you felt after any experience of serving others. Regardless of whether it was a big effort or a simple as holding the door open for someone, I’m willing to bet you felt more positive, happier, more connected to others. This experience is what the world needs in greater quantity.
If being of service in your life is important to you, take a moment now to consider all the many ways you serve others. Look at your family, church, community and work setting. While you may not think of yourself as a leader per se, consider that any act of service involves taking initiative to improve a situation that by definition is leadership. It’s loving in action.
Here’s a simple tool you can use anytime. It can be done before you walk out the door in the morning, before making a phone call, upon entering a meeting or giving a presentation. Ask yourself, “How can I be of service to this person/these people/this situation?” Take a couple deep breaths and just relax. See what comes forward as a response and act on it. I have found time and again tapping into this level of intuitive wisdom brings about a better result and a more satisfying interaction. Making this choice makes a difference to whomever I meet and wherever I go. I suggest you practice this approach and see how your life changes. Try it for a couple of days in a row, or a week. You may want to keep a journal to note insights and breakthroughs. Most important, notice how you feel serving others and if doing so brings about a greater sense of connection and well-being. If it does, applaud yourself for taking leadership in your own life. If enough of us do the same, the result be a paradigm shift in the current world situation.
Daniel Eldredge, M.A., is a seasoned leader with a background in nonprofit management and a passion for education and transformational leadership. He loves mission-driven, values-led organizations that place importance on developing and nurturing servant leaders. He recently relocated to Atlanta from Los Angeles and is a personal and business coach and consultant. He volunteers as an online administrator for the Spiritual Living Institute.