I am a very fortunate person. I grew up in a loving home with parents that took excellent care of us (my brother, my sister and I). I had access to excellent schools and a supportive community that worked together to provide opportunities for all of its citizens. I have very clear memories of my parents volunteering wherever and whenever they could to support endeavors that their kids enjoyed, or that would serve the community at large. My father was a volunteer with the local election board (and still works the polls every election day). My mother was a volunteer with the Girl Scouts of America. She was my troop leader from the time I was in 4th grade until I graduated from High School. She continues her volunteer work today within our church and by extension, with a local support group for women and families that are struggling to get back on their feet after setbacks of homelessness and unemployment (my father helps with that as well). I remember asking them when I was a kid why they do it. They reminded me that it was important to give back to the community that provided so much for us. My parents were clear examples of servant leaders and I found myself drawn to the concept.
Servant Leadership may sound like an oxymoron to most. In many instances, people think that followers serve the leaders – by fulfilling some vision that the leader has for the group. Servant leadership is about so much more than that. It is an attitude or approach to leadership that involves wanting to serve others and essentially putting the needs and feelings of others first so that they grow and evolve and go on to serve others themselves (Northouse, 2013). Larry Spears, a former CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, has documented ten characteristics of a servant leader. They include: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Spears, 2010). As a Girl Scout Leader, my mother exemplified each of those ten characteristics. She understood that the girls involved in the program came from varied socio-economic backgrounds, religious faiths, and education levels. She listened to each girl with an empathetic ear. She knew that some of the girls in her troops came from broken homes. Many times I would hear the girls in my troop express envy toward me that my mom was so great they wished she was their mother too. My mom created a safe place for these girls to express love and fear and joy and pain. She helped to heal those hurts and in doing so, created awareness in other girls that not everyone was dealt the same hand in life.
I remember too that my mother was able to work with us as scouts to get involved in helping others as well. Our local community housed a nursing and rehabilitation center for senior citizens – the Pocopson Home. As young scouts, we decorated coffee cans and filled them with holiday cookies to be delivered to the residents there each year. As we got older, we visited the center directly and spent time with the residents – sharing songs and stories and doing crafts together. As our leader, my mom had initiated the program and knew that teaching us about the plight of those less fortunate would help us to understand what types of services the world needs. She was creating future servant leaders through her own leadership. She knew that we each had value and skills that would benefit others. Some of the girls were better at crafts so they were in charge of the can decorating. She also saw that some girls were quiet and reserved. As a servant leader, my mom helped those girls realize that their participation of filling each can with cookies and then putting them in boxes for delivery helped the troop to realize their goals. As we worked together to complete the cans and plan our visits to Pocopson, my mother was creating a community within our troop and she was reminding us (without us even knowing it) that we were part of a larger community. She was, and still is, the embodiment of a servant leader.
Albert Schweitzer is quoted as saying, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” (M2 Communications, 2015). Social media has allowed me to stay in touch with girls that were in those troops. There are pharmacists, stay-at-home-mothers, customer service agents, and even troop leaders themselves. My mother played a part in each of their lives by showing that leadership is not always about one person in charge of or controlling others. It can be about the greater good and keeping the focus on others. It can be about searching for positive outcomes and helping our communities to grow and nurture each other. The selflessness of servant leadership is admirable and I am truly grateful for the role model my mother provided for our family and our community. She is truly a servant leader and I could not be more proud.
M2 Communications. (2015). Leading Thoughts Building A Community of Leaders. Retrieved from Leadership Now: http://www.leadershipnow.com/servicequotes.html
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership Theory and Practice (Sixth ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.