Servant leadership is not about you!

Servant Leadership

July 2, 2020

For a break from covid-19, I thought this month it might be good to return to the subject of international leadership in challenging times. This month, I am looking at the principle of Servant Leadership. The word servant may make readers uncomfortable with its connotations of indentured labor, or connections with organized religion. At its core, Servant Leadership is a re-imagining of the traditional command and control style of leadership which completely subverts the hierarchy.

SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management puts it this way –

“Servant leaders are a revolutionary bunch—they take the traditional power leadership model and turn it completely upside down. This new hierarchy puts the people—or employees, in a business context—at the very top and the leader at the bottom, charged with serving the employees above them. And that's just the way servant leaders like it.”

How does this resonate in the context of international education and supporting students, our normal focus? When we lead through a time of unparalleled uncertainty, the only things we can count on are the things closest to us, namely our attitudes and how we relate to our colleagues, including those that we supervise, and the students that we serve.

In this era that puts an emphasis on authenticity, the pandemic gives a chance to step back and reflect on what it means to lead and how we can do so effectively. Servant leadership is one way of demonstrating that authenticity by placing students and colleagues at the center of the organization.

As an example, when I mentor young professionals in the field, I break down which parts of international education do the most travel. I use the 80/20 rule to illustrate the point that a small fraction of people gets to do the vast majority of the travel. That’s one of the perks of being a leader. But a servant leader is not interested in self-gratification, they seek organizational success by placing the team’s personal and professional needs at the center of her or his thoughts. In this way colleagues are motivated because they feel valued and empowered, rather than commanded and controlled. A confession here; I like to travel. I chose international education as a career because I loved working with people from all over the world and because I loved the idea of being paid to travel. And in some previous jobs, I probably was guilty of enjoying the perks of leadership. The principles of servant leadership have given me the tools that I need to think outside of my own professional “wants” and instead to think of the team’s success.

But who knows how much travel we will be doing in the future? And in any case, we are fighting tremendous headwinds of the pandemic, the anti-immigrant sentiment held by so many, and the isolationist tone of our current leadership. So how do we move the needle forward?

Only time will tell, but by putting our students and colleagues at the center to keep moving them forward and keeping the ideals of international education alive and well we are able to exercise a small measure of control when everything else is chaos. In the meantime, the headwinds will shift. They have to.

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