The Servant Leader: Transforming Executive Style
by Thomas Gailey
SERVANT LEADERSHIP DEFINED: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” --Robert Greenleaf
Word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of advertising. But this isn’t an article about advertising. It’s a story of how word of mouth sparked a program that is preparing seminarians to be more effective parish priests.
Howard Stoeckel was CEO of Wawa in 2011 when the beloved convenience store chain brought in the Haub School’s Center for Professional Development to conduct management training in “servant leadership,” a philosophy at the core of Wawa’s operations. The training, which ran through 2013, was very successful — so successful, in fact, that Stoeckel shared details about the experience with the Most Rev. Timothy Christian Senior during a meeting, shortly after Bishop Senior became rector of Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary.
St. Charles Seminary Training
Their conversation provided the impetus for the creation of a servant leadership program led by Haub School faculty and inagurated last spring, for all third-year seminarians working toward a Master of Divinity. The training was tailored to the seminary’s needs and was based on the results of an extensive survey of Archdiocesan priests in parishes that had received newly ordained priests in the past decade.
“We want to equip our seminarians with the leadership skills needed to be more effective parish priests in the 21st century,” says the Rev. Joseph T. Shenosky, vice rector of the College Seminary.
The phrase servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay he first published in 1970. The philosophy is not found in many organizations, according to Ronald Dufresne, Ph.D., associate professor of management and a member of the team that worked with the seminarians.
“It’s the perspective that our role as leaders is to serve the needs of others and to make others’ lives better,” he says. “It really flies in the face of what, in many companies, defines leadership.”
Pope Francis has been called the epitome of a servant leader because of his desire to guide the largest Christian church in the world by making service to others his foremost priority.
“We understand the importance of introducing the principles of servant leadership to men in formation for the priesthood,” Bishop Senior says.
The seminary program consisted of five workshops highlighting leadership and managerial skills informed by the principles of the philosophy. Topics included inspiring and empowering people, delegating effectively, managing conflict, engaging in difficult communications, providing effective coaching, creating a shared vision and leading culture change.
“It’s not enough to be pastorally strong,” Dufresne says. “They have to be leaders of small organizations.”
Deacon Justin Fulton was one of 15 third-year theologians to participate in the training. Before entering the seminary, Deacon Fulton worked in financial services and as a political consultant.
“The skills garnered in the Saint Joseph’s University program were on par or exceedingly better than a good part of the education I received in my previous life,” he says.
After the spring workshops, the theologians (then transitional deacons) returned to their home dioceses for summer internship assignments where they implemented the principles of servant leadership.
“The Haub faculty did an excellent job in presenting the material and engaging the seminarians in the discussion and application of the principles, both to their lives and experience now in the Seminary, and to their future experiences in ministry,” Bishop Senior says.
When they came back in the fall to begin their fourth and final year of master’s degree curriculum, HSB faculty led a capstone session to discuss what the seminarians had learned and to assist them with personal leadership plans.
“The first year of the servant leadership program for our seminarians was a great success,” says Fr. Shenosky.
The training helped the seminarians understand the issues they might bring with them when leading parishoners.
“This program has given us and refined for us the tools we need to be approachable, open and loving change-agents for Christ and His people, the Church,” Deacon Fulton says.
The seminary is continuing the servant leadership program this spring for its current third-year Master of Divinity class.
HSB’s Customized Offerings
The Haub School customizes its servant leadership program for each organization and offers the training in one-day sessions over a span of two to three months. At the outset, faculty usually work with participants to help understand their priorities. They also look at roles of power, authenticity and ethics, as well as building trust within a team, listening, managing conflict and providing feedback. The final workshop often concludes with a discussion on vision.
In addition to Dufresne, several management department faculty have participated in the programs at the seminary or Wawa and are currently involved with a training at Kennedy Health in New Jersey.
While HSB competes against leadership development companies and other universities that provide leadership education, Dufresne says Saint Joseph’s is uniquely suited to provide this training given the school’s Jesuit mission.
“Servant leadership, for us, represents a core strength,” he says. “We have faculty who understand, can apply and can teach the Jesuit ideal of being men and women with and for others.”
Dorothy Swartz, Wawa’s senior director of talent management and development, and Anneliese McMenamin, vice president of human resources for Kennedy Health, both cite the Haub School’s willingness to customize its training as one of the reasons for selecting Saint Joseph’s.
“Truly understanding our needs and our vision is what made the difference for us,” says McMenamin, who is pursuing an MBA at Saint Joseph’s.
Research has shown that organizations with a servant leadership orientation tend to financially outperform those that do not. Companies shouldn’t just pursue servant leadership with the intention to become more profitable, Dufresne warns.
“Servant leadership begins with value of serving first, and the profits follow. We have been able to help organizations like Wawa and Kennedy Health formalize what they have already been doing culturally,” he says. “This has to be something that is authentic.”
The Wawa Experience
The servant leadership philosophy is front and center at Wawa. Dorothy Swartz, the company’s senior director of talent management and development, says Wawa pursued this training to ensure the entire company was aligned around one leadership philosophy.
Over a nearly three-year period that ended in 2013, all directors, corporate managers and general managers in the field went through the training, along with current CEO Chris Gheysens ’05 (MBA). The company is now delivering the sessions to all of its newly promoted general managers, new corporate managers and those who join the company from other organizations.
“For us, the training was important because we wanted to have one leadership approach,” Swartz says.
Participants started to apply what they learned in the full-day sessions immediately.
“We received great feedback from all of the participants,” she adds. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Kennedy Health Begins
Kennedy Health, which operates three acute care hospitals serving Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in southern New Jersey, is beginning the training. The initial phase involves 100 Kennedy leaders. Ultimately, 200 members of the system will participate.
Anneliese McMenamin, vice president of human resources for Kennedy Health, says she became aware of the servant leadership program in a management class she took as a Master of Science student at SJU. The training, she says, is “about making sure people have the tools they need to do their jobs.”
Kennedy President and CEO Joseph Devine ’85 (MBA) is an advocate of the servant leadership philosophy.
“He believes strongly that if you support the people who work for your organization, they will do what is necessary for your customers,” McMenamin says.
The HSB team has impressed the decision makers at Kennedy, according to McMenamin. Several of the faculty have healthcare experience, which she says has given them an insightful perspective. The sessions’ pre- and post-assignments and interaction among leaders have also been beneficial.
“We want this program to keep the leadership team moving in a positive direction,” she says.