Hans Rodvik: The need for servant leaders in politics

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By HANS RODVIK

What do Lao Tzu, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and Nordstrom all have in common? Each of these powerful leaders and brands adhere to the leadership model of servant leadership. 

Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” put servant leadership into a cohesive and defined model that revolutionized the conventional power structure of leadership.

According to the Servant Leadership Institute, a leader who embraces the core tenants of servant leadership is a leader with a hyper focused mission to serve those around them through collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. Larry C. Spears summarized Greenleaf’s writings, and produced a list of 10 characteristics practiced by servant leaders. They are: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

SL is an approach to leadership that should mesh well with work in the public sector. The fundamental job of public office holders and those who work in government is to advance the needs of those they serve. To do this politicians must listen to their constituents, empathize with their problems, present bold ideas to unify their community, be forward thinkers, be good stewards of public resources, fight for their constituents and staff to succeed, and work toward a brighter future that advances all people.

We are facing a systematic weakening of trust and support for America’s political institutions: congress, the federal executive branch, and even the US Supreme Court all face record low approval ratings. What is causing this decline? Is it polarization, the influence of 24/7 news, social media echo chambers, or the increase in apathy and narcissism stemming from our affluent culture?

These factors certainly play a part, but I would argue that a key element to the state of our current political system is a lack of education about servant leadership. It is the lack of elevation of individuals to public office who practice the 10 characteristics defined by Spears.

The need for servant leaders in government, and elected office is paramount in America today. Cases of public corruption, fraud, and enrichment at the expense of taxpayers occur ad nauseam around our country. In Alaska, we’ve seen our fair share of misgivings on the part of those entrusted to serve us: here, here, here, and even in Anchorage in recent years.

These so called “leaders” are not the servant-leaders described by Greenleaf, who wrote that servant leaders possess a “natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” In contrast, an unwise leader is one who according to Greenleaf, clamors for positions of influence to “assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.” These unwise “leaders” undermine the trust citizens have in our republican form of government. 

Without servant leadership, we will further become a nation governed by grifters set on accumulating power and wealth for themselves. Instead of leaders playing an infinite game, in which our society slowly makes improvements for the benefit of all, we’ll remain trapped in a cycle of short term crises that only benefit those in power. Efforts like Sen. Josh Hawley’s proposed ban on stock trading by Congress is one example of a policy underpinned by SL principles.

Elected officials and government agencies who provide public services require armies of staff to carry out their missions and assist the public. Servant leaders who listen, inspire, develop, and establish trust with their staff will help their employees serve the public at the highest level possible. When servant leaders model the right behaviors to employees in their care, they will breed a work culture that is high performing, mission driven, and customer focused.

The benefits of servant leadership are not just theoretical. Organizations that embrace servant leadershipexperience higher employee moral, less turnover, higher profits, greater trust in leadership, and more productive workers. TDIndustries, a 100% employee owned company that emphatically embraces servant leadership, for example, has earned a spot on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For 21 years in a row, continues to increase profits, and is loved by both its customers and employees.

Shouldn’t our elected officials and public agencies be striving to achieve similar results?

When those at the top of organizations demonstrate the power of servant leadership to those around them, it becomes contagious within an organization. Take the United States Army for example, where one of the primary functions of officers is to meet the needs of enlisted men and women.

The concept of servant leadership is woven into the fabric of the Army, and the Warrior Ethos to never leave a fallen comrade. Elected officials and those in government would be wise to follow the Army’s lead when it comes to crafting legislation or policies. The question politicians should ask is, “How will this law, regulation, or action benefit all members of society, and not just those in power?”

Government officials and office holders who embrace the proven model of servant leadership can help steer our society in a different and more enlightened direction. A direction to ensure the citizens of our great nation are served as individuals, and become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to become servant leaders.

Servant leadership can help provide the foundation for a rebirth of the American dream. You and I can do our part to assist in this rebirth by voting for candidates at the local, state, and federal level who have demonstrated track records as servant leaders. Additionally, we can hold our leaders accountable by measuring their actions and words against the standards of servant leadership. And let us challenge ourselves to serve boldly and authentically, whatever our station in life, to improve the lives of those we are fortunate enough to care for.

A lifelong Alaskan and servant leader in training, Hans Rodvik, has worked for elected officials in Alaska at the state and local level for most of his career. He has a BA in Political Science from the University of Alaska Anchorage and recently took a course titled Servant Leadership, conducted through Gonzaga University’s School for Leadership Studies. This piece serves as his capstone project for the course.

19 COMMENTS

  1. What a wonderful standard to work by. This concept must be yardstick to measure our leadership by.

    • True. Agree. However, as a government of the people, for the people, by the people, we the people will become involved once again and reclaim the Constitutional Republic our founders envisioned and greatly sacrificed for. Anyone who is disillusioned (very understandably so) is free to sit this out. I am very thankful to live in the land of the free and home of the brave where we still have the opportunity to choose to participate or not. We also have the freedom to express our opinions and ideas even when those ideas and opinions are totally incompatible with our fellow Alaskans, friends, and neighbors. (Well, I confess…when they are not being highly censored by entities which we will not name here but we all know. However, this too is in the process of passing away and will also be changing for the better.)

      Don’t know about the rest of Alaska, but here in Anchorage the melting process is progressing rather nicely.
      Even got my studded snow tires off before the extended deadline. : ) Happy spring everyone! Blue skies ahead.

  2. Why be a servant when the opportunity to enrich one’s self from public service is so prevalent?
    Does a public servant redistribute the wealth of others backed by the threat of force? Under the guise of a servant, force others to be servants?
    Service is a successful goal in business but in government it depends on who you are a servant to.

    • I need some examples of “ethical use of power”. A bombing campaign, perhaps? 87,000 armed IRS agents? Solar subsidies?

      • And when I say “bombing campaign” I had an African National Congress type in mind as well as a, say, Hanoi type.
        Someone remind me how many Indians were killed under Lincoln? Ethical use of power indeed.

  3. Don’t compare Jesus, dimishing his power and glory, alongside a crowd of dead leaders whose bones are still in tombs. My Jesus rose and is alive sitting jehovah God
    right side . Those other leaders at moments served theseleves. Jesus is the only one self sacrificial. Oh glory! Hallelujah! We are free!

  4. This may be somewhat counterintuitive, but perhaps one of the first steps is to be willing to overlook some of our leaders shortcomings and instead focus on their mission. None among us have committed no sins, made no mistakes or have done nothing that they regret. In the past, the private life of our leaders was generally respected and they were allowed their privacy. Now in the name of ” news ” or because of vindictivness, any mistakes someone may have made will be dredged up and displayed for all to see. Who in their right mind would want to subject their family to this sort of BS. Yes, our public servants should conduct themselves with grace and honesty. No argument there. But we have few saints among us and perhaps we should be more willing to accept folks at face value, evaluate their mission, and if it is a good one, get behind them. Yes we should prosecute conflict of interest and graft violations vigorously. But until we see more civility in the public process I am afraid we will be short of volunteers to engage in the mud wrestling.
    Just sayin.

  5. When the corporatist federal government is bankrupt what do we have left? The US 1776 Constitution and the guaranteed republic form of government. All other corporatism state, municipal governments formed pursuant to 1871 machinations will also need to comply with the US Constitution or be voided from the inception. Thus a smaller size of budgetary efforts and never again this bloat ergo go home Juneau right now. You do not even obey the bylaws you have written for yourselves in your corporatism to date anyways.

  6. It’s because the servant leader makes others look inept. Today’s society is based on cronyism.

  7. What a posting, Hans! Now that you’ve whet our curiosity, you need to start conducting a series of lectures to give us the greater benefit of your insight–for a price, of course.

    Gonzaga, eh? I’m sure the Jesuits could teach you more about “making it” in life.

  8. All these so-called leaders are really just unregistered foreign agents. The Rod Class cases proved that all government offices are occupied by sub-contractors. Like the Troopers they only protect and serve the corporations providing governmental services. The Sheriff Mack case gave then a choice. They could choose to serve the people as Public Servants or they could continue to serve the corporations. Troopers originated as Pinkertons hired to protect the railroads, and paid with public funds even though they worked for a private company, the Pinkerton Detective Agency – private security forces at public expense.

  9. What we need in government is better compensation, as Ronald Reagan said, “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.”

  10. Hans is naive in the selection of his “servant hero” leaders. Nelson Mandela, MLK and Gandhi have had their very human sexual faults scrubbed and white-washed, as well as their communist connections. Like trying to sit on a beach ball, efforts by cheer-leading historians to keep them underwater keep popping up. Old Abe was a servant leader alright — for the bankers and oligarchs who used him as a willing tool to maintain the tax-farming collection of tariffs in the South. We still suffer from his rigging of elections, suspension of habeas corpus and dictatorial use of the office of POTUS. Withal, 625,000 lives is a lot of blood for the faked legacy of freeing slaves.

    But I do applaud his ideal. Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge and John Tyler might be better choices.

  11. Beautifully stated truth AKLady!

    The Liberty given to us by God WILL be restored to the people. When it is, the glory will be his.

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