Servant leadership is more than doing something nice for others. Yes, kind and generous actions are a key element. But the more you assess the situation and the better you understand those being served, the more that all involved will experience the full richness of servant leadership. Without it your actions could actually be a disservice to those you are attempting to serve.
Robert Greenleaf said the test of servant leadership is this,
“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
To deepen my understanding of servant leadership I periodically form and refine my own definition.
To serve is to live in such a way that others become more from what I do. Servant leadership is serving in a way that others become servants who lead.
Before you reach out, reflect within on a few questions.
- Does my service help them reach their goals? Or is my only objective to achieve my own goals?
- Does my service help them to become more skilled, more knowledgeable, more self-aware? If I do what they are able to do themselves, will I deny them an opportunity to learn and grow?
- Does my service help them to become more self-sufficient and self-confident? Or is there a risk they will become dependent on my assistance?
- How will their life be different as a result of my service? What change will this bring about?
- Are they prepared for this change? Will they be equipped for the new reality?
- Are they involved in the process enough to feel ownership of the results?
- Does my service allow me to be enriched by the experience? If service is harmful to the one who is serving, it is a disservice to all. We each have our own unique gifts to share. And if anyone, even the servant, becomes less we all become less. Give of yourself without giving up yourself.
A key is relationship. In relationship we gain the understanding necessary to serve effectively. In relationship an act of kindness becomes a message of love. In relationship we share responsibility for the outcome. In relationship we grow and become more from what we do. In relationship we lead.
Go the extra mile to do something special for others,
but also go deeper to be someone of significance to others.
Image: foto76 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
When I learned the story of Thomas Van Eaton I was troubled by it, but even more so by the circumstances around it.
Mr. Van Eaton was an early European settler in Central Minnesota in the 1860s. In 1862 conflict between the Dakota people and the growing number of settlers erupted in violence, in what is commonly referred to as the Dakota Uprising. While the worst of the fighting was over fifty miles south of Van Eaton’s homestead, there were attacks in other areas as well. Thomas brought his wife and five children to a stockade twenty miles away. Returning to his farm a couple days later to check on the cattle he was attacked by a group of Dakota. Defending himself with his back to a tree he killed eight of them before he himself was brutally killed.
Though the details of the death of Mr. Thomas Van Eaton and the eight Dakota were disturbing, what disturbed me most was the realization this took place a few miles from where I grew up. And I had never before heard the story. The tiny village of Grove Lake where his homestead was, where he died and where he is buried today is just four miles from my boyhood home. Why was I learning of it now for the first time?
Why are there no signs or monuments to recognize this historical event or the nine men who lost their lives in it? Why was there never any mention of it in school? Why had I never heard of it in the local lore? And what of the eight Dakota? Where is the story that at least tells us their names?
This past summer a couple family members and I went to the Grove Lake Cemetery to see if we could find Thomas’ grave. It took us awhile, but we eventually found the gravestone matching a picture online. It was off in the corner, tucked in against a tree. The stone looks like it was badly damaged and poorly repaired. The name Van Eaton is misspelled and backwards. This alone is the physical marker of the events around the life and death of Mr. Thomas Van Eaton.
In addition to bringing light to this story, I also feel compelled to point out an important lesson the circumstances hold for leaders. One of the key roles of a leader is storyteller. Leaders need to shape a story of a better future around a shared vision. But leaders also need to keep alive the stories of the past. While it is not good to dwell in the past, we do need to remember those events that shaped who we are. This includes not just the recollection of our great victories, but also our struggles and our failures. In the shadows of our humanness we are reminded to hold fast to the light of our humanity.
The story of Thomas Van Eaton
Written upon the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park are the words,
“For the Benefit and
Enjoyment of the People.”
These words come from the 1872 act of Congress that formed the park.
What if those words were carved in stone at the entrance of every organization, and the people within lived this in shared purpose and vision? “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”
Now I’m not suggesting that every place of employment should be turned into a playground, a 9-to-5 recess time. Hardly. Imagine though if every organization existed first and foremost for the sake of the individual. What would it be like if the primary objective was to provide each and every person meaningful work? What if the purpose of all organizations was to provide opportunities that one could not realize on their own, to live out the best of who they are in work that matters, to be challenged to become more and to be enriched and grow from the work?
“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” What if?
“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get from it, but what they become from it.”