On this holiday last year, I participated in a community service project as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service celebration on campus. I vividly remember the frigid temperatures in Asheville that day and how, no matter the layers I wore, I still felt numbness in my feet and hands after a morning of working outside at a nearby community garden.
What I or my team accomplished, I really couldn’t tell you…cause it was so very cold outside, my mind could only concentrate on staying warm and praying for a speedy return to our indoor meeting point for lunch and post-service discussion.
Well… There was my team’s accomplishment of starting and maintaining a fire for some source of heat and haphazardly cooking, with solidified olive oil mind you, a few frozen veggies from the garden. You try cutting an onion that’s frozen solid with a dull knife.
Today, a year later, my mind is on leadership – servant leadership, to be exact. Service, learning, and leadership are key components of the many “A Day On, Not a Day Off” projects that take place around the country each year in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., a slain minister who was one of the key architects of the Civil Rights Movement, was one of the inspirational reasons I started this blog, and is still considered a representation for many of what it means to lead with a servant’s heart.
And yet, as much as I’ve crafted a life around principles of service – like challenging myself to be open to new understandings, partnering in an intentional and respectful way with those I serve, maximizing my gifts and talents to address the needs of others, and recognizing the deeper causes of those needs in order to empower advocates to meaningful action for our shared communities – I often wonder if I meet society’s qualifications of what it means to be a true leader, in the traditional sense.
So, do I? Am I a Leader?
A few years ago, I participated in my employer’s professional development series for supervisors. During one of the workshops, we discussed leadership in relation to effective staff management practices. When asked to share our thoughts, I spoke about how a supervisor I had early in my military service commented during a performance review that I would make a good leader… if I applied myself more. I continued by saying I didn’t really see myself then as having leadership potential, especially in military terms, and still struggle to see how I could be or am considered, by peers and former student workers, as a leader.
Why? Because I never saw my “shy away from the spotlight” (and the big responsibility that comes with the spotlight) work style as a trademark of leadership. I mean, even with (“the original“) MLK’s servant heart, he still had the confidence and charisma to put himself “front and center,” to stand before tens, hundreds, and many thousands to give direction and words of inspiration time and time again. He also accepted the major responsibility – as well as the consequences, good and bad – that his role and actions as a leader placed upon him. This MLK, Ms. Lucretia King? Not so much.
In response to my confession, the workshop leader said my former supervisor’s words must have struck a chord within me if he saw such potential to make that observation and since I so clearly remember the comment to this day. And, he’s right – that evaluation of my “early in adulthood” potential has stayed with me for decades now, and yes, it has haunted me as well. Because no matter the amount of service work I’ve done in my life thus far, I have yet to live up to my potential in the fullest way possible. So, in that respect, no. I am not nor should I consider myself to be a leader – yet. There are quite a few things I need to do in life before I can, in confidence, give myself that title.
Identifying What Makes a [Good] Leader
First, I must redefine – for myself – what it means to be a leader. (Period.) And to do so, I need to identify the many forms and expressions of leadership in our world to see which version best matches my characteristics and strengths.
Thank goodness there’s more than one kind of leadership style. And to find examples that reflect my diversity, interests, and experiences, I pull from my own library a few books that offer some solid reminders.
A Fire In Your Belly: Māori Leaders Speak (2003)
“If you were to ask me about the nature of leadership in terms of what I’ve learnt, you’ve got to have a fire in your belly for an outcome.”
– Sir Tipene O’Regan
Written by Paul Diamond, this book focuses on the lives of six New Zealanders who led large and diverse groups of Māori through significant societal and cultural changes. I purchased this book while in New Zealand attending an international conference on education among the world’s indigenous populations. Still in awe of the inspirational people and places I encountered during week one of that travel experience, I devoured the book’s lessons on leadership before a full day ended in week two of my stay there. However, after reading it, I had to ask myself if I had “a fire in my belly” to drive me to lead on those levels of impact.
Note: Definitely visit the HUIA website to find out more about this and many other books on the Māori and Pacific perspective. This publishing house also provides a wealth of resources and services for teachers, scholars, and others seeking tools, insight, project management and writing support.
Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women (2004)
“Whoever is in charge needs to be sure to take care of our babies, take care of our elders, the communities, keep us together and make us be good humans.“
– Linda Aranaydo, a Muscogee (Creek) physician and healer
Written by Wilma Mankiller, the late activist and former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, this book gathers the voices of 19 indigenous leaders in their own right to speak on a variety of topics that draw into contrast the Native American experience, as seen through the eyes and lives of women, with that of the larger world.
Sectioned into seven parts – Harvest Moon, Ceremony, Context Is Everything, Governance: The People and the Land, Womanhood, Love and Acceptance, and The Way Home – this book is steeped in insight, particularly the kind gained from a life of hardship, strength, and tradition. I purchased this book in its first edition, at a time in my life when I intentionally sought the written wisdom of leaders who understood human history, relationship, and resiliency. In looking back, I need to renew that quest for knowledge… and stop getting sucked into YouTube so much. (Ughhhh, distractions.)
Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (2007)
Written by Juana Bordas, this book focuses on building communities and organizations that emphasize relationships based on mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation for different cultural traditions. In it, the author outlines eight principles practiced within Latino, African American, and Native American communities:
- (a) sankofa, meaning learn from the past;
- (b) I to we, meaning move from individualism to collective identity;
- (c) mi casa es su casa, meaning embrace a spirit of generosity;
- (d) a leader among equals, meaning demonstrate community conferred leadership;
- (e) leaders as guardians of public values, meaning carry a tradition of activism;
- (f) leaders as community stewards, meaning work for the common good;
- (g) all my relatives, meaning incorporate the family, the village, and the tribe; and
- (h) gracias, meaning share gratitude, hope, and forgiveness.
While each of these principles are expressed differently among the highlighted communities, their common thread is the appreciation for diversity, the importance of relationships, and the awareness of and dedication to spirituality. These principles are also similar in theory to those found in transformational leadership, servant leadership, and spiritual leadership – all forms of leadership the author explores in comparison throughout her book.
Just My Style of Leadership
And, that’s when I land on the style of leading that fits me – one I had gravitated to during my initial reading of all these, and many other, books on indigenous ways of leadership.
Robert K. Greenleaf launched the modern servant leadership movement in 1970 with his published essay The Servant as Leader. And, according to Dr. Kent M. Keith on his website To Serve First, servant leadership can best be defined or characterized as:
… the desire to serve, the “servant’s heart,” is a fundamental characteristic of a servant-leader. It 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.
If there is a single characteristic of the servant-leader that stands out in Greenleaf’s essay, it is the desire to serve. A walk through The Servant as Leader provides a fairly long list of additional characteristics that Greenleaf considered important. They include listening and understanding; acceptance and empathy; foresight; awareness and perception; persuasion; conceptualization; self-healing; and rebuilding community. Greenleaf describes servant-leaders as people who initiate action, are goal-oriented, are dreamers of great dreams, are good communicators, are able to withdraw and re-orient themselves, and are dependable, trusted, creative, intuitive, and situational.
That’s it! That’s me!
I’ve had a desire to serve for as long as I can remember – probably, starting with those late-night commercials I would see on TV as a kid trying to keep my eyes open long enough to watch a full broadcast of Soul Train. You know the ones I’m talking about – like the Army, teaching, and Peace Corps advertisements – all with their memorable slogans like “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” and “Be All You Can Be.” I dreamed of having, doing, and being all that and more in my life when I grew up.
Ahhhhh… But now I’m all grown up and can’t seem to move past the hardest part – the step that has locked me in a holding pattern for far too long. You see, I knew all of this before but failed to apply it to my life, and so it was forgotten.
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
One thing I must do, for sure, is step UP to – not back from – the (leadership) spotlight, and all its responsibilities. I can no longer afford to be afraid of leadership and what it represents to me, or how it manifests itself in me. Another “to do” item is take a “big picture” look at leadership, instead of a “small picture” view – the one I’ve been limiting myself to lately when examining a leader’s impact on others.
Writing, for me, isn’t just writing – it’s one way I can express my style of leadership, of helping others find their voice and reach their potential, by offering my encouragement and advice and example. And, if I want to progress in my chosen career field (or any area of work, for that matter), I will need to break away from my philosophy of “leading from within (a team, a lower position, a place of financial constraints)” because the times call for boldness, for having a bold soul and brilliant energy and a servant’s heart.
Now… to start (and better yet, maintain) a new fire!