Servant leadership means helping others realize their potential

Published 6:38 am Saturday, June 30, 2018

Convention and Visitors Bureau

I am excited to share with you that over the course of the next six months, I will be participating in Leadership Kentucky, “a non-profit educational organization, that brings together a select group of people who possess a broad variety of leadership abilities, career accomplishments, and volunteer activities, to gain insight into complex issues facing the state.”

Each month we travel to different locations across the commonwealth and focus on various aspects of the state’s opportunities and challenges, with the goal to prepare ourselves to take an active role in advancing the common good. I intend to share these experiences with our community in a variety of ways and this is the first in a series of contributions to The Advocate-Messenger reflecting on each trip.

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First, I will share my thoughts on what I believe to be effective leadership and how I hope these experiences develop my philosophies over time.

Leaders are facilitators. They bring people together. They connect dots. They have a vision to see the possibilities for prosperity, change, development and fulfillment. Then they take the time to bring the pieces of a puzzle together. A friend explained this to me simply by saying “leaders are ninjas.” This struck a chord with me. I have come to realize this is particularly true in small communities, where relationships are key to success. Ninjas often work behind the scenes making “magic” happen and getting missions accomplished.

There are various forms of leadership such as autocratic, facilitative and laissez-faire style, but the one that has inspired me is the concept of service leadership. “Service leadership can be most closely associated with the participative leadership style. The highest priority of a servant leader is to encourage, support and enable subordinates to unfold their full potential and abilities.”

It dates back to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism who says “The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist” (a ninja in the shadows). Contrarily, we often associate leaders with power, notoriety, popularity — “influencers” who are trendy.

I do not disagree that there are times when leaders need to be trailblazers and make difficult decisions to bring about conclusions, but in my opinion the most powerful way to lead is as a collaborator — to empower, to support, to inspire through humility and grace. True leadership is finding a way to get the best out of people. Help them have the courage to find and use their talents to contribute to the greater whole.

To do that, you’re actually not leading the charge from the front, you’re leading from behind. This requires listening, awareness, foresight, stewardship and commitment to the growth of people building the community.

Lao Tzu continues: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Good leadership consists of motivating people to their highest levels by offering them opportunities, not obligations.

In Lao Tzu’s view we all possess individual talents and it is the keen eye of a wise leader that recognizes those assets in each person and brings them to the surface. It is the coming together of each others’ individuality that makes a more complete whole. A leader brings the strength and foresight to find ways to allow others to celebrate their own gifts and to share them with confidence and authenticity.

This is one of the many paradoxes in leadership. Strong leaders listen more and talk less; they recognize that their greatest strengths are also potentially their greatest weaknesses; they know power comes through serving, not through dominating; they can correct better through grace than through confrontation; they gain respect not by demanding it, but by giving it; and they realize a life of achievement is not measured in collections but rather in how much you have given.

It gets harder. One of the most important paradoxes that I believe facilitates leadership is that there is immense power in vulnerability. We often view vulnerability as weakness. “Susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm,” vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. I believe vulnerability is a powerful display of courage.

Brene Brown, a researcher and storyteller, tells us “it is showing up and being seen.” In her book Daring Greatly, she explains, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose: the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

Vulnerability allows us to embrace our detractors and our failures and find the courage to try again. It is authentic, inspiring and humble.

Simon Sinek explains to us that you cannot instruct people to trust; they must feel it. You cannot instruct people to be motivated; they must be inspired. A leader comes and sits next you and says, “How can I help?” They give you time and energy.

Leadership is not a rank or position; it is a decision. It is a choice. “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”

Jennifer Kirchner is executive director of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau. She is a member of the Leadership Kentucky Class of 2018.