Servant-Leadership is a serious meddling in other peoples’ lives. –Max De Pree

For those of us who espouse Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-as-leader, almost every day each of us encounters an opportunity to serve and to lead.  For example, at work one might sit in a meeting and watch folks avoid the undiscussables (the ‘elephant’ in the room) and then this person might embrace the opportunity to serve and to lead and name the undiscussables and invite the others to engage them; more often, however, the person chooses not to embrace the opportunity and remains silent (people have a variety of justifications for choosing ‘silence’ so the ‘why’ – as in ‘why’ does one choose to remain silent – is crucial).

Each day presents us with opportunities to frame one or more ‘burning questions,’ or to invite folks to live into and out of ‘higher’ values or virtues, or to challenge folks to surface and engage unresolved conflicts.  Each day we have an opportunity to make a difference by choosing to serve and to lead.

Each day we must decide whether or not to serve and to lead – to put our contribution ‘out there’ or keep it to one’s self.  Why does one choose to ‘hold back’?  Perhaps one holds back because one does not want to offend the other(s) or upset the other(s) or ‘make waves.’

On one hand, folks are right in choosing to be cautious.  Prudence is, after all, a virtue.  If we have paid any attention at all we know that folks are disturbed when one offers unpopular initiatives or suggests provocative new ideas or names the ‘elephant in the room.’  People can become quite irate when one questions the gap between their values and their actions (‘irate’ might be too soft – ‘rage-full’ might fit as well).  Folks don’t like it when another invites them to name and face tough realities; such awareness, Greenleaf reminds us, does not bring folks comfort or solace; this type of awareness, more often than not, brings disturbance..

When one chooses to serve and to lead one chooses to risk the ire of the other(s); one chooses to become vulnerable.  Being vulnerable means that one is willing to take the risk to serve and to lead; it means that one is willing to be transparent – i.e. to be an imperfect human being who will more often stumble the mumble rather than walk the talk.

Being vulnerable also means that as a servant-leader you will be wounded (on purpose or by accident) and thus you will be challenged to ‘carry the wound with grace’ (vulnerable is rooted in the Latin word ‘vulnus’ which means ‘to carry the wound with grace’); you will not seek revenge, you will not return ‘wound for wound.’  It is helpful to remember that one of the most difficult things for a servant-leader to do is to return love for wounds delivered.  For certain faith, humanistic and philosophic traditions this is the ‘turn the other cheek’ plus the ‘golden rule’ in action.

Simply put: One can get into a great deal of bother when one chooses to serve and to lead.

A quotation from Ron Heifetz sums it up quite well: “the word “lead” has an Indo-European root that means “to go forth, die.”

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