Learning to Lead by Stepping Back

Last week I read The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf as part of the Greenleaf Center’s Foundations Certification course, which I’m taking with my friends at Third River Partners.  In the essay, Greenleaf proposes how one can test his or her effectiveness as a servant leader with reflection upon the “Best Test."  When you are serving another person or group of people, ask yourself,

"Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  - Robert Greenleaf

Hearing this test of servant leadership abilities was particularly poignant for me in my role as mother.  My little guy is a joy and a blessing that I thank God for every morning.  Even so, when he wakes in the middle of the night it’s easy to lose sight of coherent thoughts and the greater goal of how to best lead my son.

At about 2 months old, my baby started sleeping from 10pm - 6am most nights.  We were overjoyed and thankful.  On the nights he didn’t sleep peacefully though, my patience quickly wore thin.  (Who said sleeping like a baby was a good thing!)  At about 4 months old I would wake to the sound of cooing, talking, or crying.  Once I determined he wasn’t hungry I would let it go for a while knowing that I should let him work it out on his own…especially if he was just talking to himself.  After a while, I wanted to go back to sleep, but I can’t sleep with the baby being awake!  So I’d get up, go in his room, put the pacifier back in his mouth, and go back to bed trying to sleep as quickly as possible.  This scene would end up repeating itself 3-4 times from 3-6am.  So I wasn’t getting restful sleep and not helping my baby develop good sleep habits either.  Over days and weeks, things were not getting better.  They were getting worse!  My eyes were more bloodshot each morning as the days and weeks wore on. 
In my short time as a parent I’m finding this a constant battle.  The good things are hard to do, and most of the time it isn’t what you want to do.  (This is actually true with anything, e.g. exercise, eating healthy, saving for retirement.)  This is where the "Best Test” illuminates. 

As I pondered my serving leadership role in my family, I knew that my short term “fix” was not only not working, it was hindering us.  As the weekend approached, my husband and I decided it was time to let him figure it out.  No more pacifier rescue.  My husband would keep me strong (and out of the nursery).  That night (early morning) was rough.  He woke around 5am.  He needed to make it to 7am, his normal wakeup time.  We braced ourselves (and closed our door).  It was hard.  He cried until about 6:45am (with a couple of calming reassurances by Dad), when he finally wore out and went to sleep.  It was really hard.  When I went in to wake him for the day, he opened his eyes and gave me a huge smile!  My thought was, “How can he be smiling?!?!"  The next night was so much better…we all slept straight through until 8am.  Glorious! 

Not every night is great even now, but I am learning to rehearse the "Best Test” goal in those moments.  I want him to learn to be freer and more autonomous, eventually learning to serve others too.  Right now that means learning to calm down and sleep on his own.  I know this test will only become harder as the parenting choices get harder.  I pray for the strength to be a servant leader, one who serves another without reservation to help them "become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.”

Greenleaf’s Best Test takes on a different view than what naturally comes to mind when the term “servant leader” is mentioned. Most of us think being a servant means you have to be a doormat, giving everything without the expectation of return. It sounds exhausting, and it is!  This is not a serving leader.  We need to step back to see the greater goal, where we want to be, and continually make steps (and sometimes re-step) forward toward it.  Leading by stepping back.  How terrifying and empowering to the servant leader and the person being served!  Do you remember when someone believed you could do something and stepped back to allow you to struggle through it?  Was it a high power presentation, a field assignment, or riding your bike?

There are those around you who need you to lead them by stepping back.  Are you willing to sacrifice today for the sake of reaching the greater goal in the future?


*This blog post orginially appeared on June 16, 2016 on Amanda's blog eNthusaProve

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Inspiring Leadership: My Dad

In honor of Father’s Day I decided to do some reflection on my own father, Bob Phelps. My father has always been an example to me of what a leader should be. He encourages others, loves new ideas, and creates systems that work by removing obstacles in the way. In many ways he has been practicing serving leadership for years, although he may not have called it that.

As I have gotten older, I have seen first-hand the transformation of some of the organizations he worked for. Watching as he took struggling work environments and turned them into thriving places, alive with energy and excitement. One of the ways he did this was by identifying a greater goal that everyone in the organization could get behind.

One organization he worked, Pittsburgh Urban Christian School (PUCS), for had the greater goal of “preparing children for a lifetime of learning” by providing excellent education regardless of the race or economic status of the family. As a part of fulfilling PUCS’s greater goal, my dad had the idea to create outdoor spaces for students to learn and have fun in. This came in two parts, the first was to create an outdoor classroom and curriculum for students of all ages to study nature. The second was to get a new playground for the students.

It just so happened that the school used a public playground that was rundown and dangerous for students and neighborhood kids to play on. My dad and his team applied for a grant to build a new playground for the neighborhood. He appealed to the school’s greater goal of teaching children to learn to get the organization behind the idea.

In the process my dad teamed up with a non-profit that specifically works to help design and build new playgrounds for children. The real excitement came when 200 volunteers were so excited about the greater goal that they participated in building the new playground. Many of the volunteers came from PUCS because they saw how this project fit into the school’s greater goal of expanding education for students and neighborhood kids alike. Today the playground is used by about 500 kids from the school, neighborhood, and local organizations.

My dad strove to do something that not only benefited his own workplace, but also the community. His greater goal helped inspire his organization and neighborhood to dream big and create something greater than themselves. I am inspired daily by my father’s example to run towards a greater goal--one that furthers our organization’s mission and strengthens the community around us.

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