Service… to self?

servant leadership RSM Insight article Sept 2011     When I was a child, I had a baby book that my mom and I would complete each year. It chronicled changes in my height, major life milestones, and changing answers to questions such as, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you look back at my answers to that question, early on, the answers varied but were usually either “nurse” or “teacher.” For one of the last entries, however, I simply wrote, “I want to help people.”

I have always been someone interested in service. In high school, I ran for offices in clubs that allowed me to get my fellow students more engaged in community service opportunities. After college, I spent a year in AmeriCorps, a national service program in which adults (usually young adults) dedicate one year to “intensive service to meet community needs in education, the environment, public safety, health, and homeland security.” After finishing my AmeriCorps service, I was happy to accept a placement in the inaugural cohort to serve in the Child Hunger Corps, “a two-year national service program designed to increase the capacity and capability of Feeding America’s member food banks to execute programs targeted towards the alleviation of child hunger.” I entered Virginia Tech’s Master of Public Health program because I have a desire to use my career to serve those living in Appalachian communities and assist with finding solutions to an array of health problems that persist in this region.

Throughout all of my experiences, I’ve had to learn how to balance my work with my own well-being. Being a highly empathetic person (see my previous post), this is not away easy. While in AmeriCorps, I worked as a client service coordinator, meeting with patients who had HIV/AIDS and cancer. I often grew to care very much for these people, only to lose them to their illnesses, learning of their death and then spending time talking to their grieving loved ones. While working in food banks and pantries, there were many days I left the office, only to spend the drive home fighting back tears over all the things I couldn’t make better. The desire to serve leads to fulfilling experiences, but it can also be extraordinarily draining.

On the website for Robert Greenleaf’s Center for Servant Leadership, he is quoted as saying of servant leadership, The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

The desire to serve others can motivate us, as individuals, to take leadership positions that we might not have otherwise felt the need to seek out for ourselves. What I have come to understand, however, is that servant leadership cannot totally mean selfless leadership. As servant leaders, we find motivation and inspiration in the giving of ourselves to others, but this approach cannot continuously occur without the servant leader taking stock of what he or she needs, in their own journey, in order to continue to be the best leader possible. Servant leaders, perhaps more than any other type of leader, need to be supported and given the tools they need to not burn out.


The Community Tool Box website, a project of the University of Kansas, gives some ideas of how to address the challenges of servant leadership. Some of these include taking time for you, reading, looking to others to help sustain you, challenging yourself, looking at the whole picture, and celebrating the small wins. Servant leaders need to help others grow, be healthier and more free, but servant leaders should not assume that we are any less deserving of taking time to grow and maintain ourselves. Servant leaders, perhaps more than any other style of leader, needs to take time for reflection and self-preservation if we are to make the greatest impact possible within the communities where we live and work. Losing sight of this does injustice to both ourselves and those who to look to us for leadership.


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