In Philadelphia we have tried to implement a new approach of service-centered leadership.
Through our work with PhillyRising, we have learned that no matter what decisions are made in the office, the most important work we can do is to roll up our sleeves and get to work with our city’s community heroes. Mayor Nutter has been a great example of this: plowing snow for the elderly, helping paint the PhillyRising mural in Swampoodle or helping to clean-up brush at Mount Moriah cemetery. Mayor Nutter knows that leaders are never above their team—that leaders will be defined by their actions and not just his or her words—and that leaders who serve side-by-side with their direct reports, their staff and the larger community are better equipped to accomplish worthwhile goals.
Leading from the Front
Leading from the front falls under the umbrella of service-centered leadership, one of the most important and effective leadership approaches.
This concept is illustrated in the video below which describes a story I highlighted at the first annual PhillyRising Conference. It is about a drug dealer I met on Ella Street who was “upset” that our Saturday neighborhood clean-up was hurting her business. The woman—frustrated, defiant—blatantly voiced her concerns with me because our presence made her send “workers” home for the day. She even berated the narcotics officers for arresting a few of her drug dealers who were dealing in broad daylight during a City-sponsored event. We would have not seen first-hand how oppressive the drug problem was there without spending a prolonged period of time in the community.
The woman thought she was in charge of that community. It is this toxic culture—spreading to and deteriorating everything it touches—that can plague a neighborhood. The biggest problem with this is, while it is acknowledged and spoken about in strategy sessions, while you can pass by and see its effects, its severity cannot be fully comprehended until it is witnessed through real, prolonged service in that community. I couldn’t have understood just how defiant, how powerful this women’s presence was until I met her—and once I met her, I could begin to appropriately plan to solve the problem.
This is one of the advantages of leading from the front—serving alongside of frontline employees and experiencing firsthand what your organization is fighting for. This past week, narcotics officers raided her operations, confiscating both guns and drugs, and that woman is now behind bars. Her arrest is an important example of the results that can come from service-centered leadership.
Being present on the frontline gives leaders a better understanding of the challenges on the ground. However, there are other benefits to service-centered leadership.
Leadership can be exhausting. One of the benefits to this leadership approach is the energy you and your team gain from service. When you step out of the office (or conference room) and step into the community with your constituents, you are immediately reminded of what you’re fighting for. You and your team step away from the strategy sessions and find yourselves in the midst of the actual problem; this re-energizes you all, giving you concrete examples of your core mission, goals and priorities.
Another benefit is that you gain great ideas. Far too often, government takes a a top-down approach to problems—but this is not a sustainable method. In service, you hear ideas from constituents and community members who know the situation best. Often times, these people come up with ideas that were never mentioned in strategy sessions. Their ideas are scalable (and brilliant) and they would have never been discovered without serving on the front lines.
My point is this: service-centered leadership is an invaluable tool. Substantively, it gives the leader a genuine understanding of frontline problems. It also communicates authentic support at the highest levels. With this support, small efforts are energized, gaining momentum, feeling like they can tackle big problems. When leaders work side-by-side with community members, sharing responsibility for neighborhood problems, collaborating on solutions—everyone feels empowered and everyone gets results.
See you at the next clean-up.
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.