Servant as Leader (II):
with depth-educator Richard W. Smith
By Mark Johnson
|Richard W. Smith
is a depth-educator who has been living into and out of the concept
since 1975. He
has spent thousands of hours with individuals and organizations helping
integrate these concepts into their own lives. He helped develop the
Robert K. Greenleaf Center in Indianapolis from 1992-1999 and is currently
aiding the development of the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership,
Asia, located in Singapore. The following interview was conducted by
Mark Johnson, Director of National Executive Initiatives for the YMCA
of the USA and a member of the Board of Creative Leaps International
/ Associated Solo Artists.
Mark: Richard, from our previous conversations I know we share
an interest in the healthy spirit. How does your interest in the
spirit enter in to your work?
Richard: The work that I see myself doing individually and collectively
with teams and organizations has to do with how we feed and deplete
ourselves. One of the important areas of feeding and depleting
ourselves is the spirit.
Feeding and depleting ourselves?
Yes, one of the ways we deplete ourselves is through self violence
and so part of my charge is for people to come to some understanding
of the different violences they do to themselves, individually,
or within relationships or teams or organizations, or that organizations
do to themselves.
In your work with “feeding and depleting ourselves in spirit”,
who are the groups you work with exactly?
About 30% of what I do is with educators. One of
our current projects is in Singapore. I was invited by the Greenleaf
Center in Singapore
to bring my work in servant leadership to the center. Directors
from the Ministry of Education attended those first sessions…and
invited me to design a year long renewal process for teachers.
This [professional development for the Ministry
of Education] is an invitational model—not coercive. Because this process
of renewal is so personal, every teacher has choice as to whether
to enter into this process. And as we proceed, we are learning
a great deal about their culture. For example, the concept of “invitation” is
as foreign to them as it is to our organizations. People are expected
to show up and participate and the idea of choosing to show up
and choosing to participate is a bit of a stretch for them.
How central is the notion of invitation to the spirit of servant
The whole issue of invitation is absolutely central,
because you cannot coerce people into any kind of development
work. You have
to select in. Our task is to create an awareness, so that those
who are searching and seeking then say: “This way of renewal
resonates with me so sign me up.” They have choice all along
Do you ever find in this country that willing commitment to a
I’ve done a year long process with a number
of different schools here in the States, but it is not something
or school systems are inclined to want to commit to. On the other
hand my experience is that where schools or teachers are willing
to commit themselves to a long process, it can take different forms;
and both the personal and collective benefits are pretty awesome.
In many cases it is quite stunning what happens to people.
One of the issues we deal in is the issue we call
part of the question is “are educational systems inherently
unsafe?” Even if they are, I have an obligation to try to
find a way to function in them. If I decide that my calling is
teaching or I believe I have a call to be involved in this type
of work, part of my task is to help people function in systems
that might be inherently unsafe for them and help them function
in a way for themselves that is healthy. Very paradoxical work,
but I believe that it is possible.
And would that notion of safety include mental and spiritual environments?
There are four areas that we look at: how we care
for ourselves, how we are nurtured and depleted physically, intellectually,
and spiritually or in our spirit. I use spiritual or spirit depending
on the context, or the group I’m with.
So only one of those is physical and the others are some level
of emotion, affect and cognition.
Yes, we try to look at things holistically. So, how are you caring
for yourself, not only in those areas, but as a full human being?
The second layer is how you are caring for yourself in relationship.
So if you and I have a relationship, we work together. And then
[we consider the] institution. One of the gifts that Greenleaf
gave to me when I first read his work in 1975 was an affirmation
that organizations are organic. And so, for me, the question for
the organization is: How is the organization caring for itself
in these four areas? How is it depleting them?
Your work bears strong resemblance to that of Parker Palmer.
When I first met Parker in 1983, about seven years
before the Greenleaf Center moved to Indiana, I had been working
concepts for about eight years. Parker was doing some work with
a group here in this city (Indianapolis) and I had the privilege
of meeting him and learning from him. We both had interests in
how Trustees were being developed, in teacher development and in
Does you work take you outside of school and education?
One of the major pieces that has been unfolding now for about
two years is [a long-term project] with Starbucks.
As we were initially developing a learning experience, it occurred
to me that it would be appropriate if Creative Leaps performed
a Concert of Ideas as a way of beginning the experience. Starbucks
did [choose to] have this experience in at least four of their
zones: a Concert of Ideas and a Harvest of Ideas that were an integral
part of the day-long [introduction to servant leadership].
We were then invited by Starbucks to design one big learning experience
in servant leadership for about 6,000 people. I think that Starbucks
will continue to look at servant leadership as one of the foundation
pieces for developing their leaders. I feel really good about that.
It seems that giving is at the heart of servant
leadership, and I’m wondering if you see the notion of
performance as being a particular kind of gift that the artist
has to offer to the experience
of engaging and moving toward servant leadership?
I might reframe it a bit but, yes, it makes sense.
If you were to attend the two-day experience you would have with
me, you would
have certain types of music, poetry, and readings; you would draw;
you would do physical movement…
One of the powerful things about Servant Leadership
test, which is simply: “Do those served grow as persons?” Literally,
as a result of what you bring me, am I a better person for that,
do I grow? I might grow in any number of ways: I might grow in
awareness. I might grow in understanding. I might grow in clarity.
I might grow being aware of how confused I am.
For me, the power of the artist—whether it is an artist
engaging me in a sculpture that they did, or an artist who is sharing
a poem, or the artist who is a singer—I can feed that experience
with an awareness of a number of things that I didn’t have
before which I see as contributing to my growth.
One of the interesting things about awareness is
that awareness does not bring comfort. Awareness is frequently
a disturber, so
that if I am really awake I might very well be disturbed by what
I see. If so, then part of my task as a leader is to wake up and
to look around. I have experienced art, the artist’s contribution,
as a way of helping some people to wake up.
One of the things that leaders are fearful of is
their own vulnerability. There are a number of fears that, when
we look at them, are both
self-violence and fear. Actually fear is a way we do violence to
ourselves, and one of the fears that we carry is this fear of being
vulnerable. Vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnus, which
translates as ‘one’s ability to carry the wound gracefully.’
I invite leaders to consider that being a leader means you are
in relationship with people, and being in relationship with people
means you are going to be hurt. And so as the leader, when you
are hurt, how gracefully do you carry the wound?
This awareness notion has resonance in a Buddhist culture that
might be different or might be the same as in a Christian culture.
In Singapore are you working with a culture that has a significant
number of Buddhists? How do these concepts work across cultures?
In Singapore the population is about 70% Chinese,
so Taoism, Confucianism probably is the major philosophic religious
viewpoint. It is a
rich culture, so the notion of spirit, spirituality, soul…I
tend to give a number of different options so that people can pick
and choose what resonates, what fits. I talk about being awake
and aware; being intentional and purposeful. It resonates pretty
much cross culturally.
We try to be discerning and educative. For example, one of the
symbols I use is fire and so I use three candles that represent
the fire and passion that I personally bring, the fire and passion
that emerges within my relationship with you as we work together,
and the fire and passion that emerges from within the community
or the organization. One of my first learnings from people who
are Muslim is that they see fire and the candle as specifically
Christian. We had long conversations about that and they were gracious
enough to go with my interpretation, although they are finding
other ways what other symbols can they use to carry this message.
Some groups are experimenting with flowers, for example, instead
It has been a wonderful learning and our goal is
that they will take this material and they will bring it into
their culture and
will make it theirs. That’s always the goal…to make