The servant leader builds a vision for justice and exercises the moral commitment to advance the future of social change. Khaleelah Muhammad embodies the qualities of a servant leader through her vocation as a lawyer, educator, and community activist. Servant leadership is described as “the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” by Robert K. Greenleaf. The focus of servant leadership is to restore community connections, build new partnerships, and promote the common good. This process of engagement is built upon the premise that each individual has the ability to transform the world around us as we make a conscious choice to serve others and lead change.
1) Servant leadership begins with vision.
Vision provides focus for the direction one is headed. The adage of “without a vision, the people perish” sets the context for the importance of leaders creating a clear vision. This vision inspires others to discover their leadership potential and leverage strategic action in order to advance the cause of social justice. The servant leader has a vision of a world where justice and freedom reign supreme. A world where leaders “become dealers of hope,” according to Muhammad. Advancing hope requires a daily commitment for each of us to use our influence to bring forth change. Muhammad outlines a simple action plan: take a small step in the right direction and keep pressing forward. She stated, “I believe that the greatest changes that we make in this world, will begin with a small step that we each make within. This step must be oft repeated.” These small actions build the foundation for strengthening communities and empowering others to lead.
Muhammad’s vision is to fight for justice for underrepresented and underserved communities. This is a vision for justice and peace where communities live free from the threat of senseless violence and the plague of poverty. This vision requires collective action. Servant leadership is community-focused as it seeks to shift leadership authority and power to each member of the community by means of emerging from follower to leader. This process aids in the development of the leadership potential of every individual involved. “I see leadership as the manifestation of an effective communicative exchange of vision among individuals and members of a team with shared values that result in inspiration, orchestration and subsequent measurable productivity. In its highest form, its sustainability is ensured because this exchange flows in all directions. Inspiration is shared. At various points it comes from varying members of the team. When a ‘natural’ leader emerges, she or he will understand and make room for this occurrence,” according to Muhammad.
2) Servant leadership is evidenced by one’s ability to empower others.
Servant leadership is measured by the simple notion of “do you grow the people you lead?” The answer to this question is evidenced by supporting the development of the core leadership skills of others and creating opportunities for them to serve in the community. Muhammad has empowered countless young women as they discover their leadership identity and become change agents. There are several leadership quotes which inspire her personal service mission:
Servant leaders aid those around them in unveiling their leadership potential. “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders not more followers.” Ralph Nader
Servant leaders foster teamwork, partnerships, and collective engagement. “A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Servant leaders move beyond creating dependency to advancing empowerment. “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Bill Gates
3) Servant leadership is a journey of sisterhood.
Oftentimes, it is tempting to believe that you walk on the path of leadership alone. You may feel isolated due to fear or uncertainty on which direction the path of leadership will guide you. However, Muhammad reminds each of us that leadership development is a collective journey where we walk hand in hand with other female mentors and colleagues. This is a journey of sisterhood. Muhammad notes: “Bishop T.D. Jakes, at Woman, Thou Art Loosed, 2015, put it best when he said that we all have to find our Naomi. I agree with that wisdom. No matter our faith tradition, we all are spiritual entities, connected by Spirit. No one will have walked before the identical path that is our destiny to walk. I have my path and you have yours.” Naomi represents a maternal guide similar to Leo in Greenleaf’s seminal work, The Servant as Leader.
To set the scene— Leo accompanies a group of men on a mythical journey as the servant who performs routine menial tasks. Leo remains on the journey as a servant while uplifting the men and guiding the journey. One day, Leo disappears and is found by one of the men many years later. It is then discovered that Leo is also a great leader and a noble guiding spirit, in addition to being an indispensable resource to the group of men. Leo’s inner strengths as a motivator and giver empowered him to serve in a merged role as both a servant and a leader. This serves as an example of a servant leader’s ability to uplift and motivate others through random acts of kindness.
Muhammad serves as a model of servant leadership at its best. She has demonstrated the transformative power of service in developing a vision for justice and taking the steps necessary to make this vision a lived reality.
Will you join Khaleelah Muhammad in advancing change in your community by picking up the mantle of servant leadership?
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling.