The term ‘Servant Leadership’ is something I first heard about a few years ago. When she first started, our new City Manager Linda Cochrane discussed the importance of the entire City of Edmonton organization adopting this approach. While examples of the philosophy of servant leadership can be found over the course of history, it appears the term was first defined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. In an essay he wrote,
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“
After some particularly frustrating examples of decisions that completely contradict the notion of servant leadership, some people are asking if our City Administration has truly embraced this philosophy. I believe that there have been far more good examples than bad over the last few years since our City Manager started working to change the culture within the City of Edmonton as an organization. But being that this process started a few years ago, it is time to seriously ask if the areas that haven’t adopted this new approach are ever going to get on board.
I think it’s important to share one of the great examples of servant leadership before I go into the recent examples where things haven’t gone as well. A few months ago, I received a call from someone who was living in housing that wasn’t being properly maintained and it was negatively impacting their family. This person’s children were struggling to stay focused in school because of the living conditions at home. Although this particular issue was not within the City’s jurisdiction, a member of our City staff felt that they had an obligation to try and find a way to help this family. As you can imagine, I can’t go into all the details but I can say that this person was able to work with a number of other groups to find new housing that now allows this family to thrive. This is not the most recent example of servant leadership but it was a great reminder to me that many branches and departments within the City of Edmonton are regularly supporting Edmontonians.
Over the past few months, we have all heard about some frustrating stories where empathy was not shown to those who would be impacted by the decisions. Changes to the accessible parking program, removal of memorial plaques on benches, and not allowing Heritage Festival to use the storage location they built. Each of these examples created a number of questions. How did each of these situations get to the point where the people impacted had to go to the media before it was taken seriously? Why didn’t Council know about this? How do we ensure these things don’t happen again? Who needs to be held accountable? I’ll try to provide some responses to these questions and others that I have received.
City Council has two employees: The City Auditor and City Manager. Council is responsible for hiring and then evaluating the people who serve in those positions. From there, the City Manager is responsible for the operations of the City and works to ensure the decisions being made are aligned with the policies that Council approves. With over 13,000 employees, there would be no efficient way for City Council to stay informed on every decision being made nor should we be getting involved in every decision. Our role is to provide clear policy direction and then hold the City Manager accountable to those policies. If we start getting involved in every small decision, then I think we would have to ask ourselves if we are fulfilling our obligations as a Council to provide clear direction and/or hold the City Manager accountable. Therefore we have some steps that we can take to make sure we are confident in the process so that the best decisions are being made every day.
Using the accessible parking example, there was a meeting with the Accessibility Advisory Committee in advance of the changes being made. At that meeting, there was significant concern raised by the committee members. This should have set off a red flag and resulted in a delay to any implementation in order to complete another review of the proposed changes. That doesn’t mean that when a large percentage of people disagree that we should simply not proceed with a change, but rather that we need to reflect on what is being proposed and determine if we have properly analyzed other options and/or ways to mitigate impact from the change being proposed. There may still be times that we then proceed as originally proposed but at least we can be confident in the process that led to that decision and that we considered all other options.
If the philosophy of servant leadership was accepted across the entire organization, it’s very unlikely the examples above would have occurred. The reason that I supported extending the City Manager’s contract is that I have seen the positive impact within departments that have fully embraced servant leadership. While I believe the leadership within each department understands the work that needs to happen, there are still pockets within certain branches that have not shown that understanding. This shift in culture started a few years ago and as mentioned above I believe we have reached that point where it’s time to ask, if there are people that haven’t embraced servant leadership yet, is it time for them to move on to an organization that has different values? Those are tough conversations to have but necessary to ensure residents and businesses within the City of Edmonton are set up for success.
I know that there are many decisions made every day which demonstrate this commitment to servant leadership. Those good decisions will understandably not get special attention because ideally we want good decisions to be made at all times. But when we see a spike in poor decisions, my obligation is to ask myself if the policy is clear and if it isn’t, it should be updated so City staff can make better decisions. This is going to happen with our major events strategy in mid-September. That meeting will allow us to provide clear direction around how we need to support our festivals and events going forward. When the policy is clear but a decision doesn’t reflect that policy, then the City Manager has to hold staff accountable and Council has to hold the City Manager accountable.
Whether a person is an elected representative or working in the public sector, we cannot forget that we are all here to serve every Edmontonian. That means we have to put their interests first when making decisions. Those interests can be quite diverse so it will be challenging to please everyone. But we all have to be able to show that we have thoroughly considered those diverse perspectives in order to be confident that the best decisions are being made every day. Overall, I believe we are heading in the direction. After this disappointing week, it’s time for everyone to support the philosophy of servant leadership so we can continue to build a great city that is focused on serving all Edmontonians. I know that most staff within the City of Edmonton are servant leaders, now we all need to take action to prove it.