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Healing Communities: Servant Leadership for Municipal Leaders in the COVID-19 Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pallavi Awasthi
September 10, 2020

Insights:

  • Servant leadership is a highly inclusive style for municipal leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Servant leaders rely on empathy, emotional healing, community service and ethical orientation to collaborate with multiple stakeholders in managing crises.
  • Servant leaders build trust with stakeholders both within and outside the organization.
  • Servant leaders achieve organizational and community service goals by serving and empowering followers while keeping the community well-being as their highest priority.

Introduction:

The COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous pressure on municipal governments. In such trying times, the crisis of leadership is as evident as ever before. Preparing and empowering local communities to manage through this crisis needs highly empathetic and service-oriented municipal leaders. This calls for achieving new frontiers of leadership in municipal governance based on integrity, empathy and community service orientation. Municipal leaders are closest to the community to foster civic engagement. And, civic engagement is the key to effective crisis management. Municipal leaders today face the challenge of rebuilding the citizen’s trust and reasserting themselves in a new AVATAR OF A COMMUNITY CUSTODIAN.

Various types of leadership styles, like transformational, ethical and collaborative, are applicable in government organizations, but none of them fulfill the empathetic and community-centric needs of municipal governments. For instance, transformational leaders can change the status quo. But such leaders do not encompass empathy, emotional healing and service to followers and the community. They can be unsuitable in managing the humanitarian crises. Leadership qualities such as emotional healing, empathy and community service are critical for crisis management. The question to ponder is what type of leaders are best suited in municipal agencies to manage the urgent crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The emerging servant leadership approach addresses this predicament by emphasizing, “Serving and empowering the community through empathy and emotional healing.” Robert K. Greenleaf originated the concept of servant leadership in 1970. Greenleaf conceptualized that the SL approach is a solution to many problems in our society as it squarely focuses on empathy and community service. Servant leadership begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first, and the conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. Despite its core philosophy for community service, servant leadership isn’t so popular in municipal agencies.

Healing Communities: Servant Leadership in Times of COVID-19 Pandemic

Servant leadership is vital for preparing local communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It internalizes emotional healing, empathy, ethical and service orientated behavior among leaders. In municipal governance, SL philosophy resonates with Terry Cooper’s Responsible Administrator, David K. Hart’s Honorable Bureaucrat and Camila Stivers’ Listening and a Responsive Bureaucrat. It centers around the leader’s display of ethical behavior and exhibits genuine care and empathy for those they serve. SL emphasizes that service to others and not self-service is at the heart of community service. Thus, SL is highly inclusive in preparing local communities during the COVID-19 crisis.

The bridging role of municipal leaders as custodians of community is vital during the COVID-19 crisis. Due to their empathetic leadership, servant leaders bridge trust between multiple stakeholders. In the bridging role, there are three challenges for municipal leaders currently: (1) create and reinforce roles and responsibilities to bridge the gap between politics and administration, (2) synchronize relationship networks to engage with multiple stakeholders  and (3) create structures and processes to integrate citizens. Servant leadership offers an effective solution for municipal leadership challenges. Figure 1 below illustrates servant leadership dimensions pertinent for municipal leaders in managing COVID-19 pandemic crises.

A servant leader’s self-concept drives the strong moral and spiritual character. It is evident that when leaders are servants first, they rely on empathy, emotional healing and engagement among employees and the community to foster a serving culture. Servant leaders treat their followers and community members as their collaborators to create a service vision. This helps in finding creative solutions during a crisis. Despite servant leadership’s broad application to ensure the well-being of local communities, there are no servant leadership development programs in municipal agencies.

Conclusion and Recommendation:

Increasing complexities demand sensitive public-sector leaders. Leaders who are relationship-oriented, empathetic and ethical are in demand. The SL model in times of COVID-19 crisis (Figure 1) encompasses trust-building with stakeholders both within (employees) and outside (community, nonprofits, businesses) the organization. All four circles in the model apply to the contemporary municipal leadership challenges. SL stands out as an inclusive leadership style for municipal leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To develop municipal employees as servant leaders is critical. Municipal agencies need structured internal systems of recruitment, selection and training to have more and more servant leaders. There are many organizational benefits to municipal agencies led by servant leaders during a crisis, such as community healing, trust-building, crisis communication and ensuring a high-quality service climate. An internal SL development and training module is the need of the hour to integrate service oriented leadership in municipal government practice. It is just a beginning to untangle the narrow understanding of what SL can offer to ensure sustainable health, civic engagement and credibility in our local communities. The MUNICIPAL LEADER AS A COMMUNITY CUSTODIAN is at the heart of it.


Author: Pallavi Awasthi has recently earned her Ph.D. in Public Affairs from Florida International University. Her interests include local government and community capacity building, especially exploring topics such as city leadership, strategic vision, innovation, sustainability, art & culture to uplift local communities.

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