On March 6 and 7, I attended the World Leaders Conference 2013 in West Palm Beach, Florida. This was my second time attending this dynamic conference focused on defining the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. As I listened to the speakers discuss their experiences in servant leadership, I realized that everything I had learned about servant leadership I learned from serving children who have incarcerated parents.
For the last fourteen years, I have worked to develop unique, faith-based social service programs at the Peacemaker Family Center in Miami, Florida. The most challenging program that I have helped develop and one that is also the closest to my heart is the Children of Inmates (COI). Six years ago, I was one of five, founding executive directors who initiated the COI concept. We wanted to find a way to begin serving the more than 15,000 children in Miami-Dade County, Florida who have incarcerated parents. The prospect of engaging and serving these children seemed daunting, but we were determined. For the most part, their needs go unnoticed and unmet.
To date, we have touched the lives of more than 1,500 children of these children. One of the services we provide is a quarterly Bonding Visit. The goal of Bonding Visits is to increase the number of positive attachment and bonding experiences that the children have with their incarcerated parents. In the last six years, we have taken children and their caregivers on 120 Bonding Visits to correctional facilities across the State of Florida. The philosophy and practice of servant leadership converged and became real to me as I travelled with these families.
Three things I have learned about the characteristics of a servant leader are:
* A servant leader serves people. No matter how wonderfully crafted our collaborative team’s program design is, if the children and their families are not being beneficially served, we adjust the program. The program is merely a tool to serve people.
*A servant leader loves people. I was surprised at how many pre-conceived ideas I had about prison, inmates, and our COI families. To be a better servant leader, I continually challenge myself and my team to look beyond externals and serve the human beings in front of us with love.
* A servant leader willingly goes the extra mile to serve. On one Bonding Visit, we were informed by the Department of Corrections that one of our incarcerated moms had been moved to another correctional facility two hours away the day before. Even though we had already driven five hours, two of our team members drove our “emergency” car the additional two hours so that the toddler, the incarcerated mom, and the grandmother could have a quarterly visit.
I have found that servant leadership is the most challenging aspect of being a leader. Yet, these same challenges have helped me become a better leader and a better person.
What have you learned about being a servant leader from serving others?