Reflecting on the Servant Leadership Winter Conference 2014

I had the great fortune of attending the Servant Leadership Winter Conference this past February. It was hosted by the Servant Leadership Institute and the theme was “Changing the Game.” Until late last year when I signed up for this conference, I did not know there was a Servant Leadership Institute. It provides services and resources to help bring servant leadership to various audiences. I was also surprised to learn that several companies have adopted servant leadership and that there were even servant leadership courses in universities. I had read books on the matter and saw first-hand its power in our work in Kenya but did not realize how widely used it is. Through several conversations, speeches, and workshop sessions, I also became reenergized to continue highlighting its virtues in our work and in the trainings that are led by the Leadership Program.

Since the beginning, Nuru has emphasized servant leadership as a key tenet of our leadership philosophy. It is a focal part of Foundation Team expectations and the equipping of the Nuru Kenya and Ethiopia staff. The Leadership Program’s first training piloted in Nuru Kenya, Basic Nuru Leadership Training (BNLT), featured servant leadership characteristics as desirable and necessary for Nuru leaders. It was an expectation to embody and reflect these characteristics in the way teams relate to one another as well as how they interact with the community. It is also included in performance baselines and reviews. Our Program Planning Process that is used to launch a new country project as was used in Ethiopia, also includes lessons on servant leadership to ensure these ideals are introduced at the very beginning of Nuru’s presence and work.

At the core of servant leadership, leaders bring about the best in those they lead. Leaders do not lead for their own esteem but for the sake of others. In this way, organizations benefit as servant leaders invest in each other and in their clients and customers. This philosophy is sometimes counter-cultural in societies that are more self-seeking. In the West, individual success is sought after and “climbing the ladder” at the expense of others is not only acceptable but also valued. This self-seeking leadership is also the norm in developing nations where most visible leaders and government officials seem to take advantage of their positions to gain more wealth or power at best or are outright corrupt at worst. Because of this, servant leadership was challenging for our Kenyan teams to embrace. Their belief was that the higher up in leadership they become, the more they should be served since the leaders they see in their communities receive more than they give. It was also challenging and confusing to see Western staff coming to their communities to seek their best and not just take their best. History is hard to overcome. Because servant leadership was so hard to swallow, it was very important for the expat teams to embody this philosophy. But as we did, local teams became more open to its virtues.

Also, due to the “newness” of this type of leadership, training had to be very pointed and followed up continuously. Pointed as in doing a lot of role-plays to show the various actions of a servant leader in different scenarios and reading through case studies to identify servant leadership characteristics. In addition to how servant leaders ought to act, we study carefully what servant leadership is and why it is important to become genuine servant leaders. There is still work to be done in this area in Kenya, Ethiopia, and the U.S. but I am proud that Nuru strives to develop servant leaders in our teams. I believe it is most effective especially in the long-run and as leadership is crucial to Nuru’s work, building a group of servant leaders has become a priority for the organization.

Thomas Hong

About Thomas Hong

Leadership Program Director — Thomas has worked in education and leadership development in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. He holds a B.A. in Economics and master’s degree in teaching from the University of Virginia and an MBA in international organizations from the University of Geneva.

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