The Servant as Leader (II)

Interview with depth-educator Richard W. Smith.

Mark Johnson

September 15, 2015

Richard W. Smith is a depth-educator who has been living into and out of the concept of servant-leadership since 1975. He has spent thousands of hours with individuals and organizations helping them integrate these concepts into their own lives. He helped develop the Robert K. Greenleaf Center in Indianapolis from 1992-1999 and is currently aiding the development of the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, Asia, located in Singapore. The following interview was conducted by Mark Johnson, Director of National Executive Initiatives for the YMCA of the USA and a member of the Board of Creative Leaps International / Associated Solo Artists.

Richard, from our previous conversations I know we share an interest in the healthy spirit. How does your interest in the spirit enter in to your work?

The work that I see myself doing individually and collectively with teams and organizations has to do with how we feed and deplete ourselves. One of the important areas of feeding and depleting ourselves is the spirit.

Feeding and depleting ourselves?

Yes, one of the ways we deplete ourselves is through self violence and so part of my charge is for people to come to some understanding of the different violences they do to themselves, individually, or within relationships or teams or organizations, or that organizations do to themselves.

In your work with “feeding and depleting ourselves in spirit”, who are the groups you work with exactly?

About 30% of what I do is with educators. One of our current projects is in Singapore. I was invited by the Greenleaf Center in Singapore to bring my work in servant leadership to the center. Directors from the Ministry of Education attended those first sessions…and invited me to design a year long renewal process for teachers.

This [professional development for the Ministry of Education] is an invitational model—not coercive. Because this process of renewal is so personal, every teacher has choice as to whether to enter into this process. And as we proceed, we are learning a great deal about their culture. For example, the concept of “invitation” is as foreign to them as it is to our organizations. People are expected to show up and participate and the idea of choosing to show up and choosing to participate is a bit of a stretch for them.

How central is the notion of invitation to the spirit of servant leadership?

The whole issue of invitation is absolutely central, because you cannot coerce people into any kind of development work. You have to select in. Our task is to create an awareness, so that those who are searching and seeking then say: “This way of renewal resonates with me so sign me up.” They have choice all along the path.

Do you ever find in this country that willing commitment to a multi-year process?

I’ve done a year long process with a number of different schools here in the States, but it is not something that schools or school systems are inclined to want to commit to. On the other hand my experience is that where schools or teachers are willing to commit themselves to a long process, it can take different forms; and both the personal and collective benefits are pretty awesome. In many cases it is quite stunning what happens to people.

One of the issues we deal in is the issue we call safety…and part of the question is “are educational systems inherently unsafe?” Even if they are, I have an obligation to try to find a way to function in them. If I decide that my calling is teaching or I believe I have a call to be involved in this type of work, part of my task is to help people function in systems that might be inherently unsafe for them and help them function in a way for themselves that is healthy. Very paradoxical work, but I believe that it is possible.

And would that notion of safety include mental and spiritual environments?

There are four areas that we look at: how we care for ourselves, how we are nurtured and depleted physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually or in our spirit. I use spiritual or spirit depending on the context, or the group I’m with.

So only one of those is physical and the others are some level of emotion, affect and cognition.

Yes, we try to look at things holistically. So, how are you caring for yourself, not only in those areas, but as a full human being? The second layer is how you are caring for yourself in relationship. So if you and I have a relationship, we work together. And then [we consider the] institution. One of the gifts that Greenleaf gave to me when I first read his work in 1975 was an affirmation that organizations are organic. And so, for me, the question for the organization is: How is the organization caring for itself in these four areas? How is it depleting them?

Your work bears strong resemblance to that of Parker Palmer.

When I first met Parker in 1983, about seven years before the Greenleaf Center moved to Indiana, I had been working with Greenleaf’s concepts for about eight years. Parker was doing some work with a group here in this city (Indianapolis) and I had the privilege of meeting him and learning from him. We both had interests in how Trustees were being developed, in teacher development and in servant-leadership.

Does you work take you outside of school and education?

One of the major pieces that has been unfolding now for about two years is [a long-term project] with Starbucks.

As we were initially developing a learning experience, it occurred to me that it would be appropriate if Creative Leaps performed a Concert of Ideas as a way of beginning the experience. Starbucks did [choose to] have this experience in at least four of their zones: a Concert of Ideas and a Harvest of Ideas that were an integral part of the day-long [introduction to servant leadership].

We were then invited by Starbucks to design one big learning experience in servant leadership for about 6,000 people. I think that Starbucks will continue to look at servant leadership as one of the foundation pieces for developing their leaders. I feel really good about that.

It seems that giving is at the heart of servant leadership, and I’m wondering if you see the notion of performance as being a particular kind of gift that the artist has to offer to the experience of engaging and moving toward servant leadership?

I might reframe it a bit but, yes, it makes sense. If you were to attend the two-day experience you would have with me, you would have certain types of music, poetry, and readings; you would draw; you would do physical movement…

One of the powerful things about Servant Leadership is Greenleaf’s test, which is simply: “Do those served grow as persons?” Literally, as a result of what you bring me, am I a better person for that, do I grow? I might grow in any number of ways: I might grow in awareness. I might grow in understanding. I might grow in clarity. I might grow being aware of how confused I am.

For me, the power of the artist—whether it is an artist engaging me in a sculpture that they did, or an artist who is sharing a poem, or the artist who is a singer—I can feed that experience with an awareness of a number of things that I didn’t have before which I see as contributing to my growth.

One of the interesting things about awareness is that awareness does not bring comfort. Awareness is frequently a disturber, so that if I am really awake I might very well be disturbed by what I see. If so, then part of my task as a leader is to wake up and to look around. I have experienced art, the artist’s contribution, as a way of helping some people to wake up.

One of the things that leaders are fearful of is their own vulnerability. There are a number of fears that, when we look at them, are both self-violence and fear. Actually fear is a way we do violence to ourselves, and one of the fears that we carry is this fear of being vulnerable. Vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnus, which translates as ‘one’s ability to carry the wound gracefully.’

I invite leaders to consider that being a leader means you are in relationship with people, and being in relationship with people means you are going to be hurt. And so as the leader, when you are hurt, how gracefully do you carry the wound?

This awareness notion has resonance in a Buddhist culture that might be different or might be the same as in a Christian culture. In Singapore are you working with a culture that has a significant number of Buddhists? How do these concepts work across cultures?

In Singapore the population is about 70% Chinese, so Taoism, Confucianism probably is the major philosophic religious viewpoint. It is a rich culture, so the notion of spirit, spirituality, soul…I tend to give a number of different options so that people can pick and choose what resonates, what fits. I talk about being awake and aware; being intentional and purposeful. It resonates pretty much cross culturally.

We try to be discerning and educative. For example, one of the symbols I use is fire and so I use three candles that represent the fire and passion that I personally bring, the fire and passion that emerges within my relationship with you as we work together, and the fire and passion that emerges from within the community or the organization. One of my first learnings from people who are Muslim is that they see fire and the candle as specifically Christian. We had long conversations about that and they were gracious enough to go with my interpretation, although they are finding other ways what other symbols can they use to carry this message. Some groups are experimenting with flowers, for example, instead of candles.

It has been a wonderful learning and our goal is that they will take this material and they will bring it into their culture and will make it theirs. That’s always the goal…to make it yours.

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The Servant as Leader (I)