Service Centered Leadership


Traditional leadership models usually wield power from the top of the organizational hierarchy. Power flows down through the organization not unlike the typical command and control structure found in the military. In contrast, a servant-leader empowers others within the organization and puts the needs of others first as they help staff develop and achieve optimal performance.

Further still, service centered leadership goes beyond the servant leadership model and drives the “in service of others” philosophy through the entire organization, even to the customers or citizens they serve. It is not about one great servant leader at the top, but an army of leaders and employees all committed to a service mentality to achieve great results down the line. Unlike other leadership styles, service centered leadership is not about being at the top of an organization; it’s about affecting those around you and contributing to an overall culture of service.

Significantly, you don’t need to be a public service organization to find success with this approach. All of our organizations are working to serve stakeholders that are important to us.  Whether its customers, citizens, shareholders, students or clients, a passionate commitment to service is often the life-blood of any great organization.

Mothers In Charge

A few weeks ago, Mothers In Charge (MIC) held their national convention here in Philadelphia. MIC is a group of mothers who tragically lost their children to gun violence and now passionately advocate for non-violent conflict resolution and peace. After three days of interacting with Dorothy Johnson-Speight, Director of MIC, and leaders from the public, non-profit, and academic sector, a distinguished Doctor from North Carolina, who attended the conference, stood to address conference attendees. He humbly explained how he had worked for two big city mayors, as well as a governor, and he had never seen the type of leadership around the gun violence issue he had witnessed here in Philadelphia. He summarized the type of Service Centered Leadership I’m talking about:

“You have something special going on with your leadership in Philadelphia. You know what service is all about. It’s not about taking care of yourself; it’s about using your position to take care of others.”

That level of leadership is what we aspire to. While I don’t know whether we achieve it every day, when we are at our best we are using our positions to serve others. We are constantly trying to improve the lives of others for the greater good of our community, our organization, our employees, and our customers and citizens.

Father Knows Best

Perhaps the best example of this form of leadership is Pope Francis. The Pope is the international face of the Catholic Church, the spiritual leader to an estimated 1.2 billion followers. Despite the fact that he is half a world away, this important leader is influential right here in Philadelphia. And if City leaders have their way, he will make even more of an impact in Philadelphia in 2015.

Recently, Mayor Nutter and a group of Pennsylvania delegates traveled to Rome to ask the Pope to visit Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families, which will be hosted in Philadelphia in 2015. While a Papal visit would generate millions of tourism dollars to the region, there is another reason that City leaders are so genuinely excited to host Pope Francis in Philadelphia: he practices service centered leadership and personally embodies many of the best qualities of a leader.

Photo made available by Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano

Photo made available by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis is a very different type of Pope. There’s a way about him that has caught the world’s attention as he quickly works to revitalize the Catholic Church.  While his famous “Who am I to judge?” and other tolerant views have certainly distinguished him, it’s Pope Francis’ consistent “service-above-all” leadership that has helped set him apart from his predecessors. Pope Francis has made service his top priority and (perhaps more importantly) through his personal example, has driven this priority through the entire church hierarchy.

First, at the very beginning of his Papacy, Pope Francis chose his name after Saint Francis of Assisi, a humble Catholic friar who dedicated his life to serving the poor. Since that time, Pope Francis has honored that name by calling for a church that “is poor, for the poor” immediately after his election. Then, he chose not to adorn himself with the more elaborate garments and shoes of his predecessors. He has been publicly critical of extravagant spending by subordinates, setting an important tone at the top. Pope Frances has charged Vatican leaders to sell their desk and has urged them to “go out and find the poor.” (The Pope sends archbishops letters each morning from followers who write to him asking for help.) Pope Francis has also invited the homeless to his dinners and has even secreted out of the Vatican (in a humble disguise) late at night to feed and commune with the poor, a behavior he was known for as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. His is most definitely a service centered leader.

Pope Francis’ approach was on display when during his meeting with Mayor Nutter he humbly asked the Mayor to pray for him. The Mayor was a little taken back (by the fact that the Holy Father would desire his prayers) and told him he would certainly pray for him but that he would welcome his prayers as well. I found this story amusing. Two service centered leaders each humbling themselves before each other asking for prayers from the other. As a Philadelphian, I was proud of that moment.

Leadership for Today

The traditional models of leadership no longer apply. Today’s leaders must make service of others the priority if they are to empower and engage employees and stakeholders in new ways that will achieve great outcomes. Today’s employees require more of their leaders if they are to stay engaged and continue with the organization long term. Today’s customers and citizens require more from their leaders as they seek to connect with and hold leaders accountable in ways they never have before. Today’s leaders must use their influence to serve others both inside and outside of their organization. Only then will we achieve true service centered leadership that results in great service for all of us.

Rich headshot 1Rich 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.


2 thoughts on “Service Centered Leadership

  1. Pingback: Innovation of the Year | PhillyInnovates

  2. Pingback: Innovation of the Year | richnegrin

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