Leadership Through Service

Author name
Betsy Alden, Faculty Associate, Program in Education

In this short life
That only lasts an hour
How much, how little
Is within our power.
             --Emily Dickinson

We often associate leadership with power, but there is also a notion of Servant-Leadership, in which one’s power is exercised in service, or acting for the common good.  Duke’s mission of “knowledge in the service of society” reflects this idea, and many of our programs and activities provide opportunities for students to “serve”—whether on campus, in the Durham community, or in the larger world.  Life, Short, Much, Little—every day we might ask, “How do I make today matter in the midst of all the things I have to do?”

Leadership through service is a deliberate way to cultivate many of the values students claim to want to develop in their goals for “improving the world,” “making a difference,” “becoming a good person,” “being a change agent,” or “following my passion!” Acts of service (or a serving orientation to life) take you outside yourself and your own little sphere to new communities and people who can teach you much about yourself, as well as about life as you do not know it.  And it IS “within our power” (i.e. LEADING your own life!) to find or create opportunities for this daily.

Service-Learning employs a reflection practice which helps us discover what matters, and what is within our power, as we describe, examine, and articulate our experiences.  Each of these steps can apply to any life experience, and I urge you to consider them in the context of your own efforts to “lead from within.”

Step One:   Describe.  Ask yourself, “What am I doing?”  (An internet guru recently said on NPR, “Attention is now the scarcest resource of all.”  So be intentional about objectively noticing what is going on in any particular moment (this is also called Mindfulness), and what details are significant—in your behaviors, attitudes,  the people you are with, the setting, how you are feeling. (This will, of course, require that you set aside your earphones and turn off your cell phone so that you can focus on the specifics!)  “I am sitting on the bus next to someone I don’t know and I am eager to get this next class over with so I can go to the gym.”  Or “I am tutoring a third-grader who can hardly speak English and I feel inadequate to help her learn to read.”

Step Two:  Examine. Ask yourself,What could I be doing differently—or better?  How can I enlarge my world to embrace more of this moment/opportunity/challenge?  Why am I feeling uncomfortable

/happy/relieved/eager—or nothing?”  As you focus on this step, be aware of the responses that emerge—“I could start a conversation with a stranger.”  “I want to take a walk in the gardens.”  “I could make some picture flash cards for the child I am tutoring.”  I am resisting identifying my feelings because that might interfere with what I need to be doing.”  “I’d like to write a note to a former teacher.”  “I want to know more about the Durham public schools.”

Step Three.  Articulate. Ask yourself, “What have I learned from this experience—about myself, about other people, about the way the world works, about the way this school/organization behaves?”  Then, “How can I apply any new insights and understandings to other experiences and moments?” What can I change—in myself, my environment, my relationships—that enable me to exercise what is “in our power”-- and to “make a difference”?

            The poets always say it best: 

Pay attention.
Be amazed.
Tell about it.
      --Mary Oliver

The DEAL model for Critical Reflection was developed by Dr. Patti Clayton and others, and can be explored more fully at http://www.ncsu.edu/cece/resources/deal_model.php.