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By Chris Wells | Jun. 14, 2017

Leadership Lessons from Laurelwood

When I was first invited to participate in the Leader in Training there was a rush of excitement about the opportunity. My mind thought first of the other motivated professionals who I could gain insights from. I was also excited about what I anticipated would be a variety of eye opening material that would improve my ability to motivate others and drive my organization as a whole to a new level of greatness. And, more than anything I was honored that the other leaders in my organization thought enough of me to invest the time and resources to allow me to take the journey over the six months to reach a new level as a leader in our organization. As great as these thoughts and aspirations were, they all shared a common factor. I was primarily focused on myself and how I would reach my potential. The opportunity to participate in the May LIT 11 service project gave me great insight into the joy and fulfillment of being a servant leader.

My first inkling of what was to come was when I saw the initial schedule of activities for the LIT 11 course in January. There were a number of interesting topics and intriguing materials shown to go through. The one mysterious element to me was the vagueness surrounding the early May block of days surrounding the service project. The only details provided to our class was that we would need to be away from home for a few days at an undisclosed location. My mind began to wander. What was our class getting into with committing to this service project? As we finished the April session Gretchen finally revealed the type of project we would be volunteering on, the building of a peace park in a public housing project on the south side of Indianapolis, at the Laurelwood housing project. I immediately breathed a small sigh of relief, which was quickly followed by a search on my phone as to what exactly a peace park was.

As I got ready for the first day of the service project the weather could not have been more discouraging. There were torrential downpours and threats of lightning storms for most of the first day of the project. Which is exactly what you want to see when you are getting ready for a day of working on a mission to move some earth to create a park. As I drove through the storm I prepared myself for a day of waiting out the rain. As I walked into the Laurelwood community center my worries seemed to fall away. The leader of ProAct Indy, Derrin Slack, had set up the morning schedule around some team building activities that both served to break the ice and subtly get everyone ready to embrace the servant mindset. Derrin did a great job of creating a welcoming environment that didn’t leave me feeling like I had to venture too far away from my comfort zone. More importantly, each subsequent activity required each person in the room to lower their guard and think more about how to work together to complete the task at hand. It was a good transition to what we were facing over the next couple of days.

As we sat down for lunch the day seemed to be turning for the better. The weather that had looked so ominous as we all arrived in the morning seemed to be turning for the bright. As we made our way over to the jobsite where we would be working the task at hand became clear. Piles of mulch and gravel sat along our path and we walked up to the area of the complex where the peace park would be getting installed. This was also our chance to meet the kids from the local Emma Donnan Middle School who would be lending a hand to help us complete the project. As we split into teams I found myself amazed at how seamlessly everyone seemed to find a role to fill. There wasn’t one leader or manager around to direct everyone where to go. Rather, everyone had a clear vision for what we were working toward and seemed committed to doing whatever it took to get the job done. No matter how boring or strenuous the task may be, there weren’t any complaints. Everyone seemed willing to sublimate their interests in the short-term to help achieve the end goal. By following the selfless example that Derrin and the rest of the ProAct team set as servant leaders, the trueU class members were able go above and beyond what so many of us would have thought possible.

One of the most gratifying experiences of this opportunity was the chance to work so closely with the students from Emma Donnan Middle School. Throughout the time together there was a natural bonding developing between us and the kids. Not because there was any real benefit for us, or because we had to. Just seemingly because both sides came in with open minds and proved through their actions that they were here to humbly give their time, sweat, and effort toward accomplishing a goal. When I think of how to best apply the lessons of servant leadership in my personal and professional life that is what I keep coming back to. Don’t just tell someone how you want them to accomplish a difficult goal or what they have to change to complete a challenging task. Be willing to truly and selflessly give of yourself and set an example. The cost to practicing servant leadership is only the time and effort you have to put in. As leaders in training, I would ask everyone to look at their work and personal lives and write down the areas where they can apply servant leadership. Then, make it a point over the next month to bring humility and diligence toward the people they are leading. At the end of the next month you will be surprised at the changes you’re able to impart just by acting in service.