The power of servant leadership

I was driving through one of the low-income neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Durban recently. There had been heavy rains that had led to significant flooding.

When approaching an area of the road that was completely flooded, I noticed a group of boys and young men busy filling it with sand so that cars could drive through.

They did this selflessly, despite the rain and lack of financial incentive. That kind of proactive action stood to benefit the overall community.

They were applying the idea of servant leadership – when people take actions that will benefit their community. In this environment, everyone applies whatever skills they have towards the benefit of others.

This kind of leadership has thrived in some of our communities for decades.

It is exactly what was demonstrated by the youth of 1976, when they took collective action to stand up against oppression.

To this day, many remain surprised that people so young were capable of collectively working together to achieve such a defining moment in our history.

During Youth Month, the nation honours them with various youth-focused celebrations and activities.

I hope we also take a moment to ask ourselves if our actions today are significant enough to honour the legacy of those who lost their lives in 1976.

Forty years later, they would be our parents and grandparents – looking back on the impact of their leadership.

I wonder if we are really continuing to apply the legacy of servant leadership that they left behind for us.

I ask this because I notice a shift towards a more individualistic approach to leadership, especially in terms of how we conduct ourselves in the world of business.

We focus on what “my business and I” can gain, instead of the value that my business can add to the community it operates in.

When you apply the concept of servant leadership, you could expand your own potential because your goals are no longer limited to the needs of one individual – they expand to the needs of the entire community: where your business operates, where your suppliers operate, where your customers live and even where your employees live.

As long as our scope of impact includes stakeholders with varying interests, our scopes become bigger, our vision for ourselves and the potential we could have become even greater.

Putting the needs of our communities first might help us build businesses that can achieve more than buying a BMW and branded apparel

This kind of leadership can lead us to build ventures that have the potential to go way beyond what is imaginable – as was true for the youth of 1976. The impact of their actions has lived on for much longer than any of those young individuals could have ever anticipated.

I worry about the individualistic mindsets we are adopting.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu labelled this correctly in the article he wrote in the Sunday Times last week, when he was commenting on this shift towards individualism, instead of collective benefit.

Referring to the actions of the youth of 1976, he wrote, “They did it completely selflessly: with no thought of tenders, fancy cars and clothing, or securing jobs for their cousins … They did it because it was right. And they did it together.”

If we try to emulate the values that the youth demonstrated 40 years ago, we will soon realise our communities have much to gain from our skills. How we choose to get involved in our communities will soon move beyond corporate social responsibility and social impact, and more towards incorporating the needs of our communities into broader visions.

Putting the needs of our communities first might help us build businesses that can achieve more than buying a BMW and branded apparel.

It will enable us to build businesses that will create enough wealth to develop lasting economic potential for our communities and create much-needed job opportunities.

That is the impact we could have as soon as we shift away from self-interests.

This is not a call to the youth. This is a call to any member of society who has a skill to deploy. After all, the leaders of tomorrow, the children of today, tend to emulate the behaviour of those they look up to in their day-to-day lives.

Let us learn something from the youth of 1976 and show the world that those protesting individuals, including the young people who died on June 16, would be proud of how we are leading the nation today.

This article was first published in the Business Times on 19 June 2016

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