Servant Leadership

Dear Tamara

I’ve been thinking about our conversation the other day and what leadership means to me.  A few days after we spoke, I took a little online quiz about leadership that had popped up in my inbox.  I was asked which ‘leadership role models’ I identified with and was given a list that included the likes of Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  I chose Gandhi and, following on from taking the leadership quiz myself was identified as a ‘servant leader’, the great man himself apparently being considered an example of such leadership.

Photo by AlbinoFlea
Photo by Steve Fernie

Whilst I cannot begin to compare myself to him and all that he achieved, I admire greatly his quiet and soft-spoken leadership, his commitment to a cause much bigger than himself, and the qualities of humility and integrity that defined his behavior and leadership style.  I know I have a long way to go in exhibiting all of those qualities myself but they are definitely ideals that I hold to!

It’s so easy to see leadership in the light of domineering, charismatic, personality-driven or ‘top-down’ leadership, and I know it’s hard to get the balance right, but I have seen that leadership works best when you stand behind people and allow them to flourish.  A leadership model that gets ‘self’ out of the way.

I have seen this work in practice many times in my leadership journey.  At times, too keen to push my own agenda whilst the calmer, quieter voice of my team members gently urges me to listen to what they have to say; the times when a project calls for a more collaborative leadership style, that beautifully also shifts the burden from my shoulders to a shared sense of purpose; and those moments in a theatre workshop when I am reminded that my only job is to allow that ‘life force’ that Martha Graham so eloquently quotes to flow through me and express itself in liberating the creativity of others.

Photo by gregory.ackland
Photo by gregory.ackland

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”

To me, great leadership is when we are following a cause much higher than ourselves.  When we are enlarging our sense of purpose with the certainty that we are merely instruments in the divine plan.  It is a combination of humility with a confident assertion of what you know to be right.  It is both a willingness to yield to the ideas and inputs of others as it is to sometimes stand up for what you know in your heart to be right, and true, and fair.  Critically, it is to know to do what is best for the vision, independent of the personalities involved.

I haven’t always found that easy.  I think I have sometimes allowed a false sense of humility to allow others to ride roughshod over something I believe in my heart at the expense of a productive, coherent vision, unsullied by the opinion of others.  Yet, I am learning that it is right, sometimes, to also call others to a higher standard of leadership themselves, in order that we attain a shared goal in service to humanity.  We must hold both ourselves and others accountable to that grander vision.

It is the quality of ‘surrender’ that I love the most and that has most defined my personal and professional leadership journey.  That giving over of self to the divine and all that requires.  That spiritual journey, to me, is what all leaders are required to do.  It is the quality of their spiritual journey alone, and their commitment to it, that enables the outwards expression of their leadership to flourish.

I think those leadership lessons can then have resonance with everyone’s journey, allowing us all to exhibit ‘leadership’ in our day-to-day lives.  To my mind, we are constantly ‘choosing’ leadership on a moment-by-moment basis.  In any conflict, for example, we are choosing to take the higher road in how we see the other person.  Do we choose to help a small child tie their shoelaces before rushing off to do our own thing?  Do we choose to be proactive, rather than reactive in our interactions with others?  Do we put down our smartphones to truly listen to what the other is saying?

Leadership to me, then, is a choice.  Not a role or title bestowed on us by a job description or someone else’s good estimation of us.  It is the choice to take the high road of a broader view of humanity, and cares little for whether we have followers or not.  It is the certain knowledge that we are ultimately always and only servant to Love’s vision alone.

Much love, Caroline

Surrender by arli design
Surrender by arli design

Published by Caroline Watson

Founder of Hua Dan, a China-based social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for personal and social transformation. Young Global Leader 2011 of the World Economic Forum. Writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

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