It’s your first time volunteering abroad and you’re excited, eager to go somewhere new and make a difference. You have natural passions and you want to share them. You want to help. But how? What is the best way to lead?
What is a Servant-Leader?
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. – Greenleaf.org
It may seem counterintuitive that you can be both a servant and a leader, but leading in such a way lends itself to a certain level of authenticity that regular leadership does not. Instead of leading in a top-down fashion, by commanding to those below, a servant-leader leads from the bottom-up, by listening to, trusting, and encouraging those they are leading.
How volunteers can practice servant-leadership: 10 principles
1. Listening: All leaders should have great communication skills, but perhaps more important than being able to verbally communicate effectively is the ability to listen, and to listen well. There is nothing more powerful than listening to those you are serving and doing so genuinely. It is a critical first step towards gaining the trust of the community you are working with, in addition to understanding and clarifying the goals of the group. This will only help propel your project forward.
2. Empathy: The ability to understand and emphasize with those you are serving is crucial. It shows that you are genuine, and it lets others know that you acknowledge them as individuals and a unique group. This will help you understand their needs and wants, and give your project focus.
3. Healing: The search for “wholeness” is something most people share. A servant-leader understands this, and that learning to heal can promote integration and transformation.
4. Awareness: Awareness of others and your surroundings is important. But self-awareness is equally important, and it will only make you a stronger leader. Observe. Ask questions. Listen. Take it all in.
5. Persuasion: Instead of being a leader who makes decisions and tells others to follow, a servant-leader must persuade others and build consensus amongst the group in order to move a project forward.
6. Conceptualization: Being able to look beyond the day-to-day realities of the project or the organization allows a servant-leader to form ideas for solutions to problems or provide answers to the question, “What could be?”
7. Foresight: It is important to understand the realities of the present, but by being able to put them into context with the past and its lessons, a servant-leader can make better decisions for the future, with an understanding of potential consequences.
8. Stewardship: A servant-leader, but also the organization and all its staff, must understand their role in the community as one that holds themselves and their institutions accountable, for the greater good.
9. Commitment to the growth of people: Everyone has value, and it is the servant leader’s role to promote everyone’s personal, professional and spiritual growth.
10. Build community: Servant-leaders seek to understand what brings communities together and then promotes community-building. This includes community-building within institutions, such as non-profits, or between non-profits and those they serve.
Further Reading: What is International Service Learning?
Why is servant-leadership important?
When you volunteer abroad, you are thrown into a community that is not only not your own, but often incredibly different than the one you came from. You’re the outsider, and the most important first step you can take is to listen and to gain the trust of those you’re living and working with. You will not succeed without it.
But more than that, entertaining the servant-leader mindset will open you up to learning more than you ever thought possible from your host country, community, and organization. It means you arrive in-country with no preconceived notions of what the community might want, or what your role will be. It allows you to be flexible, to free your mind, and to be guided by the community.
Servant-leadership beyond volunteering
Servant-leadership is not just for volunteering and working with host communities and organizations. It is a philosophy that is relevant both in and out of the workplace – to be able to lead by lifting other people up is a rare and unique quality, one that is sought after by fast-paced nonprofits, Agile businesses, and governments at all levels.
Further Reading: 3 Key Reasons Why International Experience Is A Career Must
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