Everybody has the potential to be a servant leader

By Devin Vodicka

Servant leadership was a concept originally popularized by Robert Greenleaf after he read Siddhartha, which led him to insights regarding the influence of “servants” who exerted strong influence and leadership. In addition to being in service to others, my view is that servant leadership also exists in service to shared values.

While I was superintendent of Vista Unified School District, this perspective was informed in large part due to a collaboration between our school district and the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI) in San Diego. We engaged with SLI to provide training for all leaders in the school district (including a series for new hires), to elevate our common understanding of the need for values-based leadership. Given our core values of respect, trust, and collaboration, this inevitably led back to a relational frame.

Servant leadership does not rely on positional authority. It is reliant on the embodiment of values that elevate others. One of my favorite examples of servant leadership as a superintendent was a program that our community ran every other year called “Vista’s Big Give.” This program was primarily driven by two teachers—Beth Duncan and Kelly McKinney—who organized teams of students from schools throughout the district to creatively generate support for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The result of the program was not only to donate significant sums of money for a good cause but also to catalyze a spirit of empowerment for our learners, who experienced how collaborative service can elevate an entire community. One of the notable aspects of Vista’s Big Give is that it was initiated, led, and sustained by teachers without any directive from administration.

Leadership can happen from anywhere at any time. Powerful leadership—servant leadership—is rooted in a values-based approach. When one internalizes this idea that leadership is not tied to title or formal authority, it also reinforces the notion that we operate in a living system where each of us has agency to effectuate change. Those who do have formal authority should use it to promote even greater levels of agency within their social system and focus efforts on ensuring that shared values serve to align the individuals within the community around a greater good. Just as this is true for principals and district leaders, the same should be said for teachers in classrooms and for staff members in any role that supports learners. In my view, that includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, noon duty aides, instructional aides, counselors, office workers, custodians, social workers, maintenance team members, nurses, librarians, and district office staff members. Whether through direct interaction or indirect influence, every employee of a school district has the potential to be a servant-leader and to effect positive change.

Part of this shift toward leadership without authority is related to the distinction between control and influence. The reality is that leaders do not have control—just the ability to be influential. Once a leader recognizes that they should focus on influence, they also recognize that expanding influence is best achieved through modeling and serving by example, as opposed to focusing on directives.

This approach is not just a theoretical construct. When leaders embody espoused values and generate high levels of trust through their example, others in the organization exhibit higher levels of “citizenship” (i.e., going above and beyond), which contributes to higher levels of organizational effectiveness. Empowering others to act in support of shared values taps into their discretionary energy and activates the latent talent that already exists within the organization.

Being in service to values and to others is the way of an effective servant-leader. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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