Inconvenient Power – On Being a Servant Leader

The Interrogation
She had just completed a sentence as I captured her thought on my laptop and sat transfixed on the screen waiting for her lecture to continue I added a few more thoughts, rabbit trails, I wanted to pursue later. My note taking always has a conversational aspect to it. I synthesize research and insights from reading I have done and take the precious few seconds between the professor’s breaths to jot down ideas that come to mind as they lecture. I was in an education design course the last semester of my doctoral program. The course caught my interest because I wanted to develop my teaching skills – the focus of my course work was leadership yet I intended to spend time teaching on the subject academically and professionally. I completed my notes and sat staring at my screen waiting for her to continue the lecture.

We sat around tables set up in a conference arrangement and Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier sat just to my right. I realized after some moments that she was not going to restart immediately. I stretched my hands, repositioned them over the key board and then glanced around the room. For some reason every eye was aimed my direction. I turned to look at Dr. Conde-Frazier and caught a rather penetrating gaze. When our eyes met she inquired, “Why are you here?”

The question itself did not strike me as odd for two reasons. First, as a master teacher Dr. Conde-Frazier modeled a powerful and effective andragogy – transitions into dynamic reflection between the content of the course and our personal experience in her class was not uncommon.

Second, as a middle-aged white guy in a culturally and gender diverse institution I often betrayed my own biases and upper middle class, suburban assumptions in my comments. This typically engendered a torrent of commentary from my academic peers on the evils of social power abuse. A litany of historical references to abuse by those who held power and privilege (middle-aged white guys) often morphed into personal stories of marginalization or worse. I learned to listen to these stories as a process of education and reconciliation. I was after all a token representation of everything that social privilege represented both bad and good.

This was not always easy. I often would rather have argued that it was not I who engaged in the kinds of social abuse often described. However, I do represent and enjoy a privileged place in society. I did not grow up in poverty, I lived on the good side of town and my parents remained married to one another throughout their lives. My upbringing was very different from many of those in the classroom. I did not have to dodge gangs or violence each day. I did not go hungry. I attended good schools and could afford medical care. I was exposed to a great deal of cultural diversity as the son of a college professor. But the diversity I saw was sanitized – I saw it without its context. So, diversity was simply a distraction from the typical. I did not understand the experiences represented in the diversity. Compared to so many others the word “privileged” does apply to me. So I determined to learn and engage the stories my presence and my ignorance drew out. On this day however, I had made no comment. I simply absorbed the content of the lecture and thought about how to use it. Dr. Conde-Frazier maintained her gaze.

“I am not sure of the context of your question,” I responded.

“Why are you here,” she repeated with the same penetrating gaze. “Are you here to add to your social power and status through the acquisition of a doctorate or are you here to learn to serve?”

The Reflection

The question framed a dialectic that was common in my educational process. I thought about it for a moment. Was the question a false dichotomy? Is the acquisition or possession of social power de facto a contradiction of service? The inference beneath the frequently prickly comments of some of my academic peers in the program affirmed that many thought privilege and service were mutually exclusive. Many of them had suffered measurable social and ethnic prejudice and only arrived at this institution by indefatigable persistence against all odds. Admittedly I did not understand the hurdles they had to cross to be there.

Clearly a danger exists in the pursuit of power or added social currency. Blind pursuit of power leaves a wake of wrecked hopes and lives callously dismissed as mere collateral damage. But even if a person is not pursuing blind ambition the dilemma of injuring others while on the quest for justice does not go unnoticed by those hurt by the exercise of good intentions. A group of graduate students in Kenya helped me understand the damage of activism with good intentions. As we discussed ethics in leadership and the idea of reconciliation and justice they pointed out that they did not object to justice. They objected to the way others defined justice for them. “We have a proverb here,” one of them stated. “When elephants make love the grass gets crushed – when elephants fight the grass gets crushed.” From the perspective of the grass the issue is not whether elephants fight or make love…the issue is that the elephants are unaware of the grass in the first place.

The class sat still waiting to hear my response – Dr. Conde-Frazier had now drilled a virtual path into my soul with her gaze. I looked her in the eye and said, “Yes.” The reality I faced at that moment was provocative. I could not divorce myself from my own historicity any more than I could alter my skin color or change my height. To try to be something other than what I am simply renders me foolish and demeans others. However, to deny who I am and that I have privilege is to continue dancing on grass that I remain unaware. To live without awareness of others places me in a position of actively engaging in the social and emotional injustices that I claim to eschew.

“Elizabeth,” I said, “I am here to gain the tools I need to serve and I am here to acquire the cultural power inherent in a doctorate. My aim is to use the power I live in to serve others. I hope that I learn how to do that effectively.”

An almost reverential hush came over the class. No one said at that moment what they were thinking. I appreciated the silence since I felt exposed and vulnerable in the moment. After a few moments Dr. Conde-Frazier returned to her lecture. I returned to my notes but I never left the question. The question echoes in my heart and mind almost every day – why am I here? What is my ambition? Do I see the grass – to use the metaphor of my friends in Kenya? How do I serve when my very presence can damage, threaten or hurt the ones I hope to serve?

From Activist to Servant

Serving as a leader is a dilemma. The dilemma does not reside in putting power, authority and influence alongside service. The pursuit of the common good by leadership implies the use of power, authority and influence to this end. The dilemma rather resides in the reality that leaders caught up in the big issues of their responsibility can become blind to their context and the unanticipated impact of strategic and tactical decisions. A friend of mine from Jamaica once explained the realities of this concept. He said that some time prior to the 1990s the dairy industry in the United States over produced product in part due to government subsidies. According to my friend the United States dumped excess product on the market in Jamaica to avoid waste. Serving a developing country with inexpensive dairy product turned into a curse by destroying the dairy industry of Jamaica. Assuming for a moment that the motive for dumping the product was humanitarian and not just economic the unexpected result of turning self-sufficient dairy farmers into unemployed dependents is terrible.

The challenge in my Jamaican friend’s story, assuming the best of motivations for the original act, is the challenge of turning from activist to servant. What is the difference?

Leaders as activists arrive with solutions. The clear and present danger of being an activist is that both the solution suggested and the problem identified may be irrelevant to the context. Again, the Kenyan proverb – if the elephants only see each other as the problem then every solution they offer will damage the grass. Such is the nature of the elephant.

However, if a leader arrives as a servant who possesses tools, knowledge and ability and determines to use those tools, knowledge and ability to innovate around the context then an entirely different potential emerges. A group of graduate students in Ethiopia taught me another important lesson on serving. I taught a course titled, “Leader Driven Organizations.” I designed the course to help leaders identify and unleash a pipeline of leadership within their organizations. I built the course around my dissertation and was excited to actually use my theories in real life situations. The class consisted of business owners, Non-governmental Organizational leaders and political leaders up to the ministry level. The first round of questions after the first lecture made me rework the concepts of my dissertation through entirely different lenses. I had assumed stable political environments. I had assumed a western definition of leadership and followership. My students did not share my definitions or the cultural assumptions behind them. I had to forget being an expert and assume the posture of a peer with insight and experience to give – the context demanded that they translate my insights into their unique context. My experience could not be accepted carte blanche.

The incident reminded me of something my dad told me when I landed my first leadership role out of college. “Son,” he said, “may I give you a piece of advice?”

“Sure dad,” I replied a little surprised at the question.

“Son, you are like a freshly minted second lieutenant,” he started. My dad was an ROTC graduate who entered the United States Air Force with a freshly minted master’s degree in electrical engineering and physics. “You know a lot but you don’t know beans about how to lead.” He paused.

“A colonel and mentor of mine told me when I graduated from officer candidate school how to succeed in my first command and I want to share that with you,” He continued.

“Go ahead dad, you have my attention,” I replied.

“He told me, Wheeler, when you arrive at your first command find the Chief Master Sergeant as soon as you arrive. When you find him you ask him this, ‘Chief Master Sergeant, I have no idea how this place runs, how do you do it?’ Do that Wheeler, and you will learn how to be an effective officer.” Dad paused. “Do you understand what I am saying? College graduates are nothing more than educated idiots.”

“Thanks dad, if the meaning wasn’t clear in the story it is in the last statement. I get it,” I said.

“Good, you have the theory but there is a gap between theory and practice and your respect of the context and the people in that context is the first step to knowing how to put your theory to work.”

Dad was right.

As leaders we want to make a mark for a variety of reasons. At best we see a future potential that we want others to engage and benefit from. At best we see inefficiencies that are more than cost generators they destroy people’s identity, confidence and sense of value and contribution. At best we arrive armed with the latest in leadership theory and praxis that we know will make the work place a better place where people want to be committed to make a difference. At worst we crave recognition as top dog, innovative whiz-kid, competitive victor, top talent and the go to person for future promotion regardless of the collateral damage we may generate in the climb to the top.

I needed and continue to need the interrogation Dr. Conde-Frazier launched that day in class. Every leader needs it. Why are you here?


I started thinking about the trust I have been given as a professor and a leader. A discussion with my current students (mid-career leaders in a master’s program) about the insights they experienced in a class on cross-cultural leadership prompted my reflection. Their insights and reflection in discussion while prompted by the course material have taken up a life of their own because these leaders have engaged the course concepts through the rich tapestry of their own leadership experience.

One of the students, a widow with three children who teaches college courses in a developing country summed up the idea best when she wrote, “Living with others necessitates, trust, respect, understanding and acceptance. Those things can bring the possibility to build good collaboration, and people can feel secure and comfortable in those situations. Those concepts really expressed my thought when I was at Santiago following the Master courses. I was surprised to see how people from different cultures, with different intellectual backgrounds, can easily put behind them, language barriers, color, identity and family barriers in order to become connected each other. I was amazed to see how, in spite of my poor English, the class took time to listen to me, and tried to understand my points of view. The experiences that everyone shared gave me the possibility to understand the similarities and differences among those cultures…. The experiences [others] shared also [helped] me…understand how I can react to some situations, good or bad; how I must put all my strength to keep going, instead of spending time to advance negative judgment; how I am not the only one who experiences bad situations. But as human beings, everywhere people know crucibles; knowing how to respond to those crucibles can be a way to build a new hope. I will never forget the profit that I gained from those moments.”

Statements like this remind me why I teach. They remind me why I go through the work of study, course preparation, grading, and faculty meetings while also holding down a full-time management job.

Effective leadership is servant leadership. Servant leaders allow others to interrogate their motives. Servant leaders own a commitment to define service by those they serve and not by their own activism. Servant leaders are first students not experts. Servant leaders understand that whatever success they have as a leader comes when they create a win/win environment.

Dr. Conde-Frazier’s interrogation does not haunt me, it reminds me to engage the question daily lest I become numb to the context I serve and the mix of motivations that stand behind my actions. Thank you Dr. Conde-Frazier, thanks dad and thank you students. Your lives make me a more capable leader and teacher.

Are you a servant leader? Consider the following questions:

  1. How often do you ask others to reflect with you about your motives?
  2. How often do you ask others for their opinion and operational insights?
  3. Do you spend time on the floor or in the field listening to your employees? Do you know what they value? Do you know their struggles?
  4. Do you allow others to question your conclusions?
  5. Do you teach others what you know and encourage them to think in a bigger picture?
  6. Do you practice challenging your own conclusions and observations?
  7. Do you routinely meet with mentors to gain feedback and insight?
  8. Do you have a vision of a future that benefits everyone – or does your preferred future only have room for you?
  9. Do you wrestle with how to get a win/win solution when simply winning is hard work?
  10. Do you find yourself resorting to power as the knee jerk response to conflict rather than exercising influence or personal authority that pulls others into being responsible participants and not just complainers?
  11. Do you talk more than listen?

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