Interview: What Is Servant Leadership?

To get a non-arts perspective on adaptive leadership, we spoke with Christopher Williams of The Leadership Program about social emotional learning.


This post is part of this month’s in-depth exploration of adaptive leadership.

To get a non-arts perspective on adaptive leadership, we reached out to Christopher Williams, Director of Social Emotional Learning at The Leadership Program, an organization that works to empower students, educators, and business leaders to create positive change.  We spoke about how arts leaders can benefit from social emotional learning and what “servant leadership” really means.

Karina Mangu-Ward: Hey Christopher. Where are you in the world right now?

Christopher Williams: I’m in Soho.

KMW: Oh! I didn’t know you were New York-based.

CW: [Laughter] Yes. We could have done this in person.

KMW: Shoot! Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I learned about you from Melissa Dibble, Managing Director of EmcArts, who met you as a part of her work with DanceWave in our Innovation Lab. You did some training with them as they were trying to rethink the way they work with students and mentors in their dance education program. Is that right?

CW: Yes. We did a three-day training on an approach we call SOAR, which stands for Stop, Observe, Analyze, and Respond. Often, behaviors, especially in young people, stem from an emotional need or feeling – something like, “I’m not good enough.” If teachers react to those behaviors by saying, “Stop talking, sit down, take your hat off,” then they’re reinforcing that sense of “not good enough.”

KMW: Very interesting.

CW: Whereas if we understand that that is coming from this insecure place and we address the need as opposed to the behavior, then we will build up that self-concept and the behaviors will reduce as a consequence of that.

KMW: So, I suspect that this is connected to your work as the Director of Social Emotional Learning for The Leadership Program. What is social emotional learning?

CW: Social emotional learning can mean a lot of things. From an educational perspective, social emotional learning means everything non-academic. It’s about asking, “Are you in a place to learn?” When kids come into school, they’re coming from somewhere and in a certain emotional state. The same thing can be said for us: If I get into an argument with my wife before work, I’m arriving in a state that isn’t necessarily conducive to learning or teaching. Social emotional learning is about relationship building skills, conflict resolution, and the ability to set and maintain appropriate boundaries, form positive relationships, communicate, and give and take positive and negative reinforcement – all the things that are human dynamics or aspects of the human condition, but aren’t necessarily found in textbooks.

KMW: Is social emotional learning relevant to adults?

CW: Yes, absolutely I think. Developing the self-awareness of our own emotional responses is how we build empathy. One of the major complaints I hear about CEOs is, “Oh, they don’t listen.” Or, “I’m not feeling heard.” Or, “My contributions aren’t valued.” These are all social emotional responses. When you look at like happiness surveys in work places, it’s about being heard, being listened to, feeling valued or feeling connected to the work. 60% to 80% communications is non-verbal. How do we create scenarios for leaders where they can read people’s reactions and their responses, tune in to that, build empathy, and build their own self-awareness?

Christopher Williams is the Director of Social Emotional Learning at The Leadership Program.
Christopher Williams is the Director of Social Emotional Learning at The Leadership Program.

KMW: You teach a workshop that you call Servant Leadership. What is servant leadership?

CW: The idea of servant leadership is based on the book “The Servant” by James Hunter. In that book, leadership is defined as “the ability to motivate people to work enthusiastically towards a common goal.” It says that leaders identify and meet the legitimate needs of the people they serve. They remove barriers or obstacles to serving the client.

Servant leadership flips the traditional pyramid with the CEO, President, or Executive Director at the top. So, the CEO supports and serves the people who report to him or her. Those people then focus on supporting their direct reports, and so on and so forth.

KMW: What might a servant leader do when faced with a really difficult, complex challenge?

CW: I think the very first thing is just to remain calm. Then, present the problem. Get your circle or your confidants around you and say, “This is what’s happening. What does everybody think about this?” Then, get some ideas and put the problem on the table – that’s first and foremost. It’s more about building a consensus and a movement, creating a groundswell, and supporting and enthusiastically working towards the common goal.

KMW: Is servant leadership always the right style?

CW: That sounds like a trick question.

KMW: It’s not meant to be! [Laughter]

CW: I don’t think anything is always the right style. Sometimes the leader just has to make a decision and then stand behind that decision. If we make a decision and it doesn’t go right, then that just means we’re faced with another decision.

KMW: What do you think arts leaders can learn from educators?

CW: In teaching, you’re there day in and day out with your students. You’re building a relationship over the course of 180 days. That’s a somewhat unique opportunity, right? You can have an interaction with a student that doesn’t go well and maybe on your way home, you’re kind of like, “Oh, God. Why did I do that?” Well then, you have the opportunity the next day to come in and apologize for it and admit your mistake. Arts leaders might try to more often take that approach of, “If something doesn’t go well today, that’s okay.” How can you look at a mistake as an opportunity as opposed to a failure?

KMW: Absolutely.

CW: Failure is an opportunity to learn, to correct, and to build upon it. Maybe that mistake was meant to happen and there’s something that’s going to be even better on the other side of it than what you had envisioned.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What does servant leadership mean to you? How can you imagine a servant leadership style supporting your organization in becoming, or staying, adaptive?

We encourage you to reflect on this month’s three research questions here.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.