Politics & Servant Leadership – A Perfect Match?

Ryan Meili has posted his concession speech from the day after the Leadership Convention and it didn’t make my Top 10 list of reasons I was supporting Ryan Meili but the fact that I’ve always found Ryan to be beyond classy, in good times and bad, was another reason I supported his candidacy.  Truly a rarity in today’s political culture…

There were dozens of reasons I supported Ryan.  Another one that didn’t make my list happened way back in October.  At that early point in the campaign, Ryan made a passing reference to Servant Leadership in a longer essay he wrote about his own philosophy of leadership:

Coming back to the question before us – electing the next leader of the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party – this understanding of a shift in leadership style is an important consideration. The task before us is to choose someone who will demonstrate the kind of servant leadership that will set the tone for the party – not just for the next election, but for the next generation. The world is changing rapidly, and the challenges we face as a party and a province are greater than any one person’s skills and abilities. We need to do more than change the leader, we need to change the conversation.

…and I thought it was yet another indication he was the perfect person for the job.

I first heard about the concept of Servant Leadership (sometimes called Humble Leadership) from a former boss.  Although this boss is/was quite religious and the idea of Servant Leadership can be traced back to ancient religious beliefs including obviously Captain Christmas – Jesus Christ himself, the concept still resonates with me and my atheist brain.  

The basic essence of the concept is that when you’re the boss, that doesn’t mean you have to *be* a boss.  Instead, your goal should be to *serve* the people you work with – whether as subordinates, colleagues or superiors – by ensuring they have what they need to maximize their success (which in turn, guarantees your success.)

(A related element of Servant Leadership is that you really shouldn’t even see people in terms of power relationships and try, as much as possible, to view everyone you interact with as someone you are an equal colleague with, to maximize effectiveness of this technique.)

People can embrace Servant Leadership (whether at work or not and whether you’re a “boss” or not) by exhibiting a few qualities that aren’t often associated with our traditional understanding of leadership:

Dangerous Trust – Humility always demands a certain level of trust. A humble leader is willing to take a risk on others, trusting them with the sacredness of the vision, even at the chance they may be disappointed with the outcome.

Sincere Investment – Humble leaders know the vision is bigger and will last longer than they will, so they willingly invest in others, raising up and maturing new leaders.

Gentle, but Strong – One can’t be a leader and be weak. Every position of leadership will provide a challenge to the leader, but humble leaders have learned the balance between being gentle and remaining strong. (Think Jesus!)

Readily Admits Mistakes – Everyone makes mistakes. In fact, we often learn more through failure than through success. The humble leader is quick to admit when he or she has done wrong and deals with the fault-out without casting blame or making excuses.

Forgives easily – Leadership is filled with disappointment; often at the expense of other’s mistakes. A humble leader forgives easily, remembering how many times he or she has been forgiven.

Quickly diverts attention – We all like to be recognized for accomplishments, but a humble leader is quick to divert attention to others, sharing the limelight for successes with those, who many times, may have even had more to do with the success than the leader did. They celebrate the success of others louder than personal success

Remains thankful – A humble leader is appreciative of the input of others into his or her leadership. So much so, that a humble leader naturally praises the actions of others far more than the time spent patting themselves on the back for personal accomplishments. Humble leaders recognize that all good gifts come from above.

Recognizes Limitations – No one can do everything. A humble has the ability to say, “I can’t do that or I’m not the one who should”.

Shares authority – Humble leaders don’t take all the key assignments for themselves, but gives out prime responsibility and authority to people he or she is leading.

Invites feedback – A humble leader wants to learn from his or her mistakes and wants to continually see improvement. Humble leaders initiate other’s suggestions and feedback, not waiting until complaints come, but personally asking for the input.

Why is this concept a perfect match for the political world?  Two big reasons – one general and one specific to politics.

The general reason is that the nature of leadership is changing and numerous organizations – private, public and other – are shifting from having traditional command-and-control, autocratic, hierarchical leaders to organizational leaders that empower people, decentralize authority and invert pyramids.

The more specific reason that applies to politics is that, unlike a traditional workplace, the majority of people involved in politics (eg. the members rather than those limited few who work for the party in some capacity) have the ability to walk away if they don’t feel that the party leadership is serving them in the way that they expect.

This was very clearly the case when Dwain Lingenfelter was elected Leader in 2009.  He brought a very old-school approach to leadership that clearly turned people off – within the membership and beyond.  When I was door-knocking and calling during the last provincial election, it quickly became clear that many members – new and long-term – were choosing to either minimize their involvement or even to  leave the party rather than work for a leader who clearly didn’t see his role as one of serving the membership (or to be fair, if he did, it didn’t translate well – indicating that making sure people understand your intentions and approach is as important as the actions you take.)

I have to admit I had the same thoughts about leaving the party myself when Link was elected.  I mean, I’d only bought a membership to support Ryan and other than a previous leadership race in 2001, had never held a membership any other time.

But for a variety of reasons –  belief in the party, belief in my local candidate (who, like Ryan, took a classy, positive approach to politics), belief in so many of the people I’d met in the party who opened up to me with their knowledge, ideas and opportunities – I stayed involved.  In fact, I consider myself as someone who has transitioned  from an uncertain, uncommitted member to a PAC-holding, constituency association-serving, election-working member.   

Not everyone who joins the party will get as involved as I have (and with the Leadership Race over and a baby on the way in two months, I expect that my own level of involvement will drop off significantly).

But for the party’s greatest long-term success, transitioning people from “toe in the water” involvement to “doing laps in the deep end” involvement is vital.  And servant leadership is an ideal way to make that happen!

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