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THE SERVANT-LEADER: FROM HERO TO HOST

Margaret Wheatley writes, teaches and speaks about radically new practices and ideas for how human beings can live together harmoniously. Her aspiration is to help create organisations and communitites where people are seen as a blessing not a problem. She is president of the Berkana Institute, a charitable global foundation supporting life-affirming leaders around the world. She visited various parts of Australia in February 2004 to speak on leadership. In an interview with the CEO of the Greenleaf Center, in Indianapolis, she spoke of her understanding of the concept of Servant Leadership

Now more than ever, we have to fundamentally shift our ideas of what makes an effective leader. We have to shift them away from the secretive, command and control, ‘We know what’s best’. We have to leave all that behind, even though it may be effective in the moment. What I find in servant-leadership that I still find missing in the world is this fundamental respect for what it means to be human. And I think that right now the greatest need is to have faith in people. That is the single most courageous act of a leader. Give people resources, give them a sense of direction, give them a sense of their own power and just have tremendous faith that they’ll figure it out.

We need to move from the leader as hero, to the leader as host. Can we be as welcoming, congenial, and invitational to the people who work with us as we would be if they were our guests at a party? Can we think of the leader as a convenor of people? I am realising that we can’t do that if we don’t have a fundamental and unshakeable faith in people. You can’t turn over power to people you don’t trust. It just doesn’t happen.

If you don’t have faith in people, you can’t be a servant. I mean, what are you serving? If you’re not serving human goodness, you can’t be a servant. For me it’s just that simple. There is no greater act on the part of the leader than to find ways to express that great faith in people.

‘Who do we serve as leaders?’ I’ve asked that question of a lot of people. Who do we serve? We are serving human beings. And the best way to know who another human being is, is to notice yourself fully, what you need, what’s meaningful to you, what gives you heart in your work. If we could just notice our own humanness it would be a very big step forward to being able to relate to other people. If we are a leader, especially if we notice our own humanness, we notice that we have spirit, we notice that we have questions of meaning. I think all of the work that is done in helping leaders to wake up to their own humanity and their own spirituality is very essential work. It also keeps us away from using servant-leadership as the next instrument of control.

It’s simple; just be loving! Why has expressing love become such a problem when it’s a fundamental human characteristic? This is where I think we have over analysed and over complexified something that is known to everyone alive. Babies know how to unleash love. It’s all about our relationships and being available as a human, rather than as a role. It’s about being present and being vulnerable and showing what you’re feeling.

We need to get away from the belief that you can run an organization using what are called objective measures or objective processes, which are actually just completely de-humanized. The fear of love in organizations is that it makes your life as a leader far more complex.

We need practices to develop this, and I would say the ‘this’ we need practices for is to open our hearts. For most people it’s not something you can rely on as spontaneously occurring. For some it is but, especially if you’re in the workplace, your heart gets pretty hardened. You shut down, or you just find that you can’t express your love and compassion and so you take it elsewhere. So, even if you start out with a naturally open heart and a generous spirit towards others, there are many, many structures and processes in modern work and modern life that actually close us down. So we do need a practice to maintain an open heart.

I am a strong believer in meditation personally, but I think any process by which you withdraw from the world and focus on your own inner grounding is useful. For some people, that’s running; for some people, it’s playing tennis. I can get very similar grounding when I horseback ride, because you can’t lose your attention for too long without losing your seat! For some people it’s walking, or flower arranging. Whatever it is, it’s just to notice what it is that revives your sense of feeling grounded, present, and peaceful.

I have often felt that I need to leave my room peaceful in the morning because I don’t expect it to get any more peaceful while I’m out doing work. So that’s the first discipline—practicing what gives you your grounding and your peace, and to not let it slip away. The world just keeps pulling at you and I find that every so often I have to say, ‘OK, Meg. Just notice you’re spending less time cultivating your peacefulness and let’s get back to serious practice’. People of any religious order know the value of a routine for one’s practice, whether it’s a daily liturgy or a daily practice. Whatever it is, it’s the routinisation that really helps over time. So, it’s not just episodic, or only when you feel like it. Your whole being benefits from knowing every morning you’re going to pray or run or whatever. So, I find it needs to be rouitinised.

Margaret Wheatley’s latest book is Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future (2002). For further information, and a selection of her writing, including the full version of this interview, visit www.margaretwheatley.com. See also www.berkana.org.