November 17, 2003

Servant leaders

By Eric Rangus

Kate O'Dwyer Randall is assistant director of The D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership (EASL), which is administered by the Center for Ethics. Her job is to advance and support the concepts of servant leadership among the varied members of the Emory community.

Right after she explains what servant leadership means.

"Usually the reaction we get from someone who's heard the term 'servant leadership' is, 'Huh? What? Servant leadership? What does that mean? How do you do that? Servant and leader at the same time? That's an oxymoron, right? That doesn't work,'" Randall said.

Her response to these questions clears it up pretty well.

"How are you a leader if you are not being attentive to the interests of the common good?" Randall said, giving an example of her first line of explanation. "There is always this sense of 'the other' in servant leadership. It's not about how I am going to climb the corporate ladder, it's about how we are going to do the best work we can do while being attentive to both our own needs and the needs of the community."

"A servant leader has to see herself or himself as one who serves the organization and who serves those with whom that individual works," said Edward Queen, EASL director and Randall's boss. Actually, the term "boss" has nothing to do with what goes on at EASL, which was created in 1999 with a gift from William Turner, a former Emory trustee, founder of the Synovus Financial Corp. and supporter of servant leadership. He named the program in the memory of his father.

"Boss" implies a hierarchical management structure of the sort that servant leadership aims to transform. The relationship of Queen and Randall is based more on shared empowerment and camaraderie.

Queen began his job July 1, and one of his first responsibilities was hiring an assistant director. In the middle of the month, he interviewed Randall, a new graduate of the Candler School of Theology who had been working at Agnes Scott College where she assisted with its volunteer office and alternative break programs. She also had served as the lay Catholic campus minister. On the Emory campus, Randall had worked with Candler's Youth Theological Initiative.

"I was excited by her abilities and competencies, her knowledge, and her fantastic skills at working with students and other groups," Queen said. "Our personalities, work styles, and our approaches to things are remarkably complementary and also mutually strengthening. Please forgive the overblown metaphor, but it is really like watching a finely tuned jazz combo work--who can pick up the riffs at the different times."

Randall had a distinct impression of Queen upon meeting him for that first interview as well. "My first impression of Edward was that he had long hair. That was great," Randall said. "I think at the time he didn't have shoes on, which was even more delightful." The long hair, which Queen wears in a ponytail, is a constant, but the shoes thing comes and goes.

"I had read a lot about him, his Ph.D., his J.D., everything he had done globally," Randall continued. Queen holds master's and doctoral degrees from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and a J.D. from the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. He practiced law in Indiana for a time, but that is one of the smaller bullets on his resume. He was the founding director of the Islamic Society of North America's Fellowship Program in Non-Profit Management and Governance; has worked extensively in the nonprofit world; taught and consulted in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, and is the author, co-author or editor of four books, the most recent being 2000's Serving Those in Need: A Handbook for Managing Faith-Based Human Services Organizations.

"My fear was that he was going to be really unapproachable," said Randall, who began her job Aug. 1. "That he'd have all this experience behind him and be difficult to relate to, but that hasn't been my experience at all. From the beginning we both talked about what our hopes for the program were, how the program is going now and how we could work together. It's been really seamless."

One of Queen and Randall's primary responsibilities has been overseeing the EASL Forum, which brings together 17 students for weekly meetings about servant and ethical leadership and community building. Students commit to the forum for a year. Not only do they develop their own projects in order to build their leadership skills but they also meet with speakers from outside the community who discuss ethical leadership practices.

Queen and Randall also work to spread the word and practices of EASL around campus. The program already has strong ties with Employee Council, which has its own servant leadership subcommittee, and in the future EASL plans to more formally cultivate relationships with the professional schools, Emory College and other staff divisions.

Servant leadership is not the easiest concept to grasp, but once one does--especially in the case of the people whose job it is to promote it at Emory--it is difficult to let go.

"To be able to see the excitement in people committed to what they do and passionate about what they do is really key," Queen said. "Otherwise we waste so much of what a human being is about by grinding them down."

"Servant leadership was more a part of my formation rather than learning about it then deciding to go after it," Randall said. "My parents weren't obvious leaders but they were deeply community people and they knew everything that went on in the neighborhood--whose child was sick, who needed this or that. That made them leaders. When I got to college and saw leadership training initiatives without knowledge of the other, I thought it was missing something. The idea of being attentive to other people and to societal concerns is crucial. And then I came across servant leadership and saw that that was part of what they did. So I was very fortunate that way."