The Alliance for Catholic Education is an AmeriCorps sponsored program that places an emphasis on servant leadership. From the summer of 2015 through the end of the academic year in 2017, I was in this program where I was voluntarily displaced and sent to teach high school US History in Fort Worth, Texas. Going into the program, I was unsure what to expect. The classes that my cohort and I began in June of 2015 introduced examples and teaching strategies but there was still an element of unknown. I would not have friends or family within a few hundred miles of me in Texas and I was going to be brought into a brand new environment and entrusted to teach full-time while also dedicating my spare time toward a Masters of Education degree. Additionally, I would be living with four other people that I had only met once previously in a single house while receiving a minimal stipend every few weeks in substitute for an actual paycheck. Even before the school year began in August, you could imagine the potential anxiety that these factors might cause. Through our meetings and classes, I recall an emphasis being placed upon “servant leadership” but at the time, this theory did not register with me. Honestly, specific leadership strategies were the last thing that I was thinking about during that summer. By the time I traveled to Texas and was coaching football and teaching during the fall semester, I began to comprehend the meaning of servant leadership at my school and in my community where I was living.
According to Robert Greenleaf (1970), servant leadership starts with the natural feeling that one wants to serve before they lead and then consciously making sure that the needs of others’ become the first priority (Northouse, 2016). As a servant leader, the goal is to empower and cultivate a higher sense of purpose amongst the followers and employees in the organization so that the organization can become better overall (Williams, Lesson 11). According to Northouse, there are ten different characteristics that go into being a servant leader and they are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Northouse, 2016). From my experience in the Alliance for Catholic Education, I believe that the three most important characteristics of a servant leader are empathy, conceptualization, and building community. Northouse defines empathy as seeing the world from some one else’s point of view, conceptualization as the ability to plan for the “big picture” and to develop organizational strategies, and he defines building community as a collection of individuals that have shared interests but rely on a servant leader to foster a community where the members feel safe and free to express their individuality (Northouse, 2016).
These three characteristics can be exemplified by my experience in Fort Worth. In order to get along with my housemates, or anyone for that matter, it is essential to be empathetic and understanding of different ideas and cultures. This also applied to the classroom, where in order to create an autonomous learning environment, empathy is vital because it builds a more dynamic and effective classroom. Conceptualization in teaching is crucial for the success of the students. Teachers should constantly think about the future for their students and should do everything in their power to help them so that they can succeed in the future. I saw this come to fruition over the past two years when I drafted over 80 individual letters of recommendation for my former students, all of whom are now in a college of their choice. These were some of the rewarding moments from my teaching career. Lastly, building community is the most vital characteristic to servant leadership. The five of us in Fort Worth were all far away from home and we relied upon one another on a daily basis. Whether it was sharing stories from our day or simply watching television in silence, being with other teachers who had commonalities and a commitment to help their students succeed was the greatest factor for a successful two years in the Alliance for Catholic Education.
Characteristics are relatively direct in their description but the servant leadership model is difficult to conceptualize without context. Thus, Northouse outlined an input-process-output model to better explain how servant leadership functions. The input is the effectiveness of servant leadership dependent upon three antecedent conditions: context and culture, leader attributes, and follower receptivity (Northouse, 2016). Context and culture is the organizational makeup of a group, which depends upon norms within the group (Ibid.). Leadership attributes are the traits and characteristics that a leader possesses. Moral development, emotional intelligence, and self-determinedness all influence individuals differently (Ibid.). Thus, not all leaders are capable or want to be servant leaders. Follower receptivity is the level at which the followers of the leader seek to follow the leader’s servant leadership style. Research has indicated that some followers do not want to work for a servant leader because they see those actions as “micromanaging” (Ibid.). In the servant leadership model, the inputs are the foundation, when the foundation is set, the process of servant leadership can begin.
During the process of the servant leadership model, the behavior of a leader is crucial to the success or failure of the servant leadership theory. There are a few leadership behavior categories that uniquely and directly contribute toward a successful servant leadership dynamic. These behaviors are: conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, creating value for the community (Northouse, 2016). Again, drawing back on my time as an educator, I believe that the two most important behaviors are empowering, which Northouse defines as allowing followers the freedom to think and act independently and behaving ethically, which Northouse defines as doing the right thing, the right way (Ibid.). In education, it is crucial to teach and share complicated ideas and concepts in the hope of helping the student become empowered with the knowledge and ability to expand on what they have been introduced to from the lesson. Additionally, students are in search of role models and behaving ethically is crucial when attempting to make a positive impact on a student’s life.
After the process has been completed, the output is the final destination. The outcomes for servant leadership are follower performance and growth, organizational performance, and societal impact (Northouse, 2016). Of these potential outputs, I believe that the best output in the field of education is follower performance and growth. Again, the goal of education is to empower and enable the students to be the best possible version of themselves that they can be. The best teachers are able to help their students with this process by empowering them and being ethical role models.
In my experience, servant leadership works and can work really well. Putting others first requires humility and patience, but it builds trust, respect, and a sense of community. Empathizing with those around us builds a similar sense of community and makes for a more effective classroom. While servant leadership might seem counterintuitive initially when compared to older theories like the Great Man Theory, I believe that this leadership theory can be extremely impactful in the correct context.
Servant leadership is extremely effective. However, as Northouse points out, there are weaknesses to this theory. Has anyone seen servant leadership fail? Or, rather than “fail,” has anyone witnessed servant leadership falter and the figure in authority change leadership strategies?
Greenleaf, Robert. (1970). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Northouse, Peter. (2016). Leadership; Theory and Practice. Chapter 10. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Williams, Jason. (2018). Lesson 11: Servant Leadership. Pennsylvania State University. Psychology 485.