I recently had the privilege of serving on a panel at the annual United Way Worldwide Staff Leadership Conference. Melody Barnes of Aspen Forum for Community Solutions — among a hundred other key roles she plays so wonderfully to support our democracy — facilitated beautifully. She helped us dig into a host of questions about really taking on collective impact and engaged the audience in a great dialogue.
One of the follow-up items I was approached about by numerous folks afterward were a couple references I made to “servant leadership” as core to the work of collective impact, namely the backbone organization staffing cross-sector partnerships. Years ago, I read Robert Greenleaf’s book, The Servant as Leader, but given the level of interest, it sparked me to go back and take another look. I was fortunate to find a pamphlet that served as cliff notes that The Robert K. Greenleaf Center published not too long ago, and I was literally floored.
Having lived the life of a “cat herder” supporting a cradle-to-career partnership for many years in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, his words from 1970 provided a level of clarity I had not expected regarding the roles — maybe I should say “the way” (Steve Patrick, also of Aspen, noted that ancient Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu might be the most obvious example of this way of being) — those who take on this work must adopt.
Here are a few quotes that really stuck with me:
” … the great leader is seen as servant first and that simple fact is key to his/her greatness.”
“But if one is servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making.”
“A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in a less coercive and more creatively supporting ways.”
It would have been easy to pick out 100 others and I could have picked out even more of the core tenets he describes, but here are my top 10 based on my latest read:
- Set goals and be clear about direction — find creative ways to stay on course
- Listen first … really listening first
- Careful use of language — goal is to trigger the “imaginative leap” on the part of others to see new way
- Requires acceptance and empathy — respect for different perspectives
- Means pacing oneself to allow for reflection/”withdrawal
- Knows the right role to play at the right time
- Understanding institutions must move from people-using to people-building
- Requires getting people favored by rules to think differently
- The opposite of servant leadership is critic and expert; this work requires humility
- Requires foresight — ability to help solve current AND unknown problems
There are wonderful stories to go with each of these insights that make this worth your time to read. I would encourage everyone to take a look and I would love to hear what you think.