It was spring 2009; I received a letter from Dick Pieper inviting me and Dave Skogen, chairman and founder of Festival Foods in Onalaska, Wisconsin, to a meeting at the Greenleaf Conference that would be held that summer in Milwaukee. The invitation was to explore what it would mean to become a servant led community in LaCrosse. Festival Foods is a servant led company with fourteen stores across the state of Wisconsin. Viterbo University has the only Master of Arts degree program in Servant Leadership in the country. Dick was interested in how we might collaborate to extend our influence beyond the Festival Foods Company and the Viterbo University campus in the greater community. Remember, the theme of the 2009 Milwaukee Greenleaf Servant Leadership Conference was “The Institution as Servant Leader.”
That year, at the conference, Dave Skogen told the Festival Story; Jim Hunter gave a plenary talk; and Dick Pieper gathered the Wisconsin attendees to talk about the next steps. There was an energy in the room with good representation from La Crosse, Fond du Lac and Milwaukee. The conversation on Wisconsin servant led communities was born. Of the approximately one hundred that attended that meeting, thirty were students enrolled in Viterbo’s MA in Servant Leadership program.
Festival Foods sponsored Jim Hunter in December, 2009, at Viterbo University. Jim spoke on servant leadership for two and a half hours to eleven hundred community members. Individuals and organizations were offered an hour long presentation on servant leadership as follow-up; twenty-nine companies and institutions signed up.
In February of 2010 Dick again sent me an invitation to join him, this time on a three city tour of conversations on “Becoming a Servant Led Community”. Dick organized meetings in Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and La Crosse.
Our first meeting was at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Thirty people signed up, forty-five people attended. There were twenty people in Fond du Lac, one hundred and twenty in La Crosse. The format was hospitable and simple. We gathered people for a continental breakfast, asked for expectations, had presentations from a panel of people on the Servant Leadership Journey (novice, experienced and mentor practitioners). Attendees were invited to share their stories in small groups and give reports for next steps. Dick and I then made connections between expectations and next steps. Post meeting evaluations were done at each site.
In September of 2010 Dick again initiated the organization of a second three city tour on “Becoming a Servant Led Community” for two days in December, 2010. In each of the three cities the second conversation deepened, there was a maturity in our understandings and an authentic desire to form partnerships to further develop servant leadership in their institutions, businesses and organizations. In Milwaukee a group committed themselves to early morning breakfast meetings to further the collaboration and support of non-profit organizations. A number of the Milwaukee colleges and universities are looking for common good in servant leadership to help their students and colleagues on the journey. Finally, one group organized a local online learning community in order to create understanding and support for the practice of servant leadership.
In Fond du Lac, the Sophia Foundation is committed to fostering a servant led community through public conversations and institutional partnerships. The police department, Festival Foods and local universities are giving witness to the practical applications of servant leadership in the Fond du Lac community. They also have people involved in virtual communities.
In La Crosse, Dr. Richard Kyte, director of the D. B. Reinhart for Ethics in Leadership, reminded the audience that Greenleaf’s vision for servant leadership is ethical leadership. The two La Crosse medical centers gave presentations on how their institutions are teaching, developing and practicing servant leadership. Don Weber, founder of Logistics Health, challenged us to acknowledge and embrace the sacrifice that servant leadership requires and the selfless service to a Greater Good. Dick Pieper, the senior member on the journey, reminded us that all this is possible; servant led institutions helping create servant led communities, a servant led nation, a servant led world.
Our learnings are incomplete, the feedback is still coming in, next steps are just being taken but here are some preliminary observations. First, we form our institutions, organizations, churches, neighborhoods, families, workplaces, and communities by the conversations we have. Virtual, face to face, organized and informal conversations matter. Robert Greenleaf believed in the power of language, so should we. Second, healthy institutions contribute to the health of individuals and communities. Healthy institutions need healthy servants and leaders. These healthy servants and leaders need communal support and accountability that comes from public conversations about their work and their lives. Third, there is a synergy that is developing in institutions and communities who are aware of and challenged by the ideals of servant leadership. The challenges we face transcend self interest and competition. People are interested in and committed to conversations about things that matter in the hope of serving a greater good.
Next steps: broaden the circle and develop relationships with other communities who are interested in becoming servant led; continue to provide resources for institutions, businesses and organizations who are interested in becoming servant led but do not always know where to start; continue the work which has begun. This is a marathon not a sprint. It is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.