Dec 13

You Don’t Need an MBA to Understand Servant Leadership

You Don’t Need an MBA to Understand Servant Leadership

A funny thing happens when you travel half way around the world on a mission trip: the world becomes smaller. There are so many reflections I could share from this life changing trip: the warmth of the people, the unconditional love of the children or even the incredible human spirit that perseveres in the most difficult of living conditions. All these are true and have left an impact on my heart and soul forever. But what was profound were the similarities we all share when given a common goal of servant leadership.

Kenyan classroom with fellow servant leaders

Servant Leadership for Teachers

A major part of our mission trip was to work at the Renguti School, north of Nairobi, Kenya. To give you a mental picture, imagine stone and corrugated tin roofed classrooms with no electricity or running water. The meal the children receive at school each day might be the only thing they eat all day. In spite of it all, we were greeted with an abundance of love and appreciation that I have never experienced before. The director of the school, Lucy Tush, a bright and energetic women around 30, approached me and another fellow mission worker, Kim Spivey of Spivey & Olmstead, LLC, and asked if we would run a workshop on servant leadership for her nine teachers. We were both amazed that in rural Kenya the concept of servant leadership was even known. It is usually a leadership concept taught in MBA schools and by professional leadership coaches. You may or may not have heard of that term before but many of you do it every day without thought.

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Being a servant-leader is not about being servile, it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers and communities.
Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Servant as a Leader”

Articulating Leadership Styles

Lucy wanted to find a way for her teachers to work better as a team in the school, and out in the community. We vigorously obliged and went about discussing how we would present this concept to these teachers. Most of the teachers were under 28 years old, with no knowledge of servant leadership. We decided to ask each of the teachers to describe their leadership style through a picture and leadership statement and present it to the group. In addition, we asked them to come up with a “team agreement” that they could work on all year long. Here is where our world shrank, and we were awed and touched. Their leadership statements were moving and right on target, and their “team agreement” could have been written by any top-tier MBA group in the USA.

Teacher Sarah presented a star and said, “I see myself as the light in the darkness for these children, and it is my job to lead them from that darkness into the light by educating them.”

From teacher Avoline, “My job is to leave a thumb print on the heart of every child and give them the love and encouragement to move them forward in life in a positive way.”

Embodying Servant Leadership

These teachers truly believe they are responsible for the future of their country through the education of the children. It was not hard to imagine that they already embodied many of the other attributes of a servant leader through their dedication to these children that have so little but to dream of better. That leads to the some of the other attributes of servant leadership:

  • Creating value for the community
  • Empowering and developing people
  • Humility
  • Authenticity
  • Self-reflection
  • Stewardship
  • Putting subordinates first

It seems with so few resources, many of which we take for granted every day, these beautiful teachers live and breathe servant leadership. There is a lesson for us all here.

Team Agreements

Team Agreements

A Team Agreement

The second part of the exercise was a “team agreement.” Understanding that tribalism is a big issue in Africa, we needed to help them work together across tribal loyalties for the betterment of the children. Written on a simple chalkboard this is what they came up with:

  1. Exercise patience
  2. Embrace diversity
  3. Give grace when mistakes are made
  4. Ask for help
  5. Proper time management
  6. Flexibility

The lesson from half way across the world in a land with no running water, no electricity, no computers in schools, and very limited resources, is that we should strive to get back to the core values that are important as leaders. If we lift up others, we all will be lifted. I hope this reflection of my trip to Africa will have a an impact on your life as it did mine.