The paradox of servant leadership in the classroom and therapy office

Photo by KUHT

Photo by KUHT

I loved Mr. Rogers as a kid—that avuncular, kindly, gently humorous man who could instill in me a desire to learn and become involved in civic endeavors better than any of my childhood teachers could.

Now, with Fred Rogers shining in my memory, I work as a professor and a therapist. In the classroom, I strive to be spontaneous, creative, and humorous. I hope to inspire, to lead by example with my heart front and center. After all, how does one actually TEACH a student to be an Existential, Humanistic, or Transpersonal therapist? A strong common feature of the theories within these paradigms is an emphasis on personhood and modes of being. Who a therapist is as a person is foundational to and inextricable from what he or she does in the work. Clients are helped through entering into a relationship with a therapist who embodies presence in an integrated way. How do I teach students to BE a person who is naturally and organically one who engages in an authentically healing relationship with a client?

Paradoxically, such a thing cannot be taught, at least not in the way a professor might provide instruction in the techniques and approaches of cognitive-behavioral therapy, where the emphasis is on working with clients to modify unhelpful thinking patterns that impact emotions and behaviors. In the course of any given semester, I can only do my level best to foster their individual journeys of personal transformation into a person who is a counselor, taken separately yet also together, under the guise of a course taken for a grade, with the trappings of papers, measurable learning objectives, and learning assessments.

Sometimes, even I succumb to the trance of mainstream educational contexts and momentarily forget myself by taking myself too seriously. I have become humorously (and truth to tell, somewhat painfully) aware that I have developed some unreasonable and rigid expectations of the students I teach. Apparently, if I say something—anything—even once in a classroom, I expect students to have perfect retention of that thing I said. I heartily dislike having to repeat myself. If I am asked a question in class or by email about something that has been painstakingly explained on the syllabus or in an online forum, I tend to brusquely refer them to the source of the information they are seeking. I place a high value on resourcefulness. It is almost as if I occasionally act out flashbacks to my time as a psychologist in the Air Force…

I suppose it is these moments of rigidity interspersed with playfulness, in combination with a tendency on occasion to be a trickster that endeavors to shock them out of preconceived notions that might otherwise interfere with genuine learning, that have led some students to describe me as “mercurial.” As an archetype for instruction and communication, I suppose I could do much worse than Mercury/Hermes. On the other hand, I received some recent anonymous student feedback that I might have a dual nature, and that the short-tempered and egoistic part might be the real me more than the amiable fringe player. This comment really stung, and I am all at once painfully aware of the need to re-examine my motivations and return again to the well from which I draw my deepest inspiration for teaching: a desire to serve the evolving personhood of my students. In order to do so, I might as well capitalize on my tendency to become more introspective and self-critical at this sunless time of the year in Chicago. At minimum, I clearly need to reconnect with the stillness at my center that engenders a quality that students arguably value quite highly in professors: patience.

I hope the fruits of that reflection will emerge in some form in future postings here.

In the meantime, perhaps I can share some musings about leadership and its connection to therapy and teaching. Leadership that places an emphasis on transformation is arguably a component of effective teaching styles and even therapy stances. In both contexts, modeling of integrated ways of being in the world could serve as an inspiration for helpful change for those who witness it. I will not even insist that the teacher or therapist is in every instance the one who DOES such modeling.

I recently enjoyed listening to a discussion that explored the classic question of whether leaders are more effective when they are respected because they are feared or when they are respected because they are loved. As I reflect upon how this question might impact my work as a therapist and teacher, I find I am wondering whether both strategies are traps. If I work to be respected, through fear or love, I am making the work about myself—and I lose my sensitive connection to the needs of those whom I hope to serve.

This notion of “servant leadership,” which certainly pertains to much of what I have described above, has captured my attention. In political contexts, leaders that approximate the Platonic ideal of reluctance to wield power for its own sake and instead be a genuine servant of the best interests of the people are sorely needed, or so it seems to me. I wonder sometimes if any political party in this nation has truly produced one.

For me personally, though, the ideal of the servant is germane to the work I do as a teacher as well as a therapist. I am at my best when I forget myself even as paradoxically I endeavor to manifest as much of the best of myself as I can on behalf of the journey I hope that students will take on the wings of my encouragement. In those moments, I want to be whatever will serve them best. I hope to maximize the probability that they will experience the profound sense of calling to make a substantive beneficial impact on the lives of clients—both at the microcosmic level in individual therapy and the macroscopic level as advocates and perhaps even activists. Similarly, when I serve clients by being an empathic mirror in which they can see themselves reflected in increasingly expansive ways, I feel that I am truly coming close to what I am feeling called to do and what I “ought” to be doing as a therapist.

It can be a difficult mode to sustain for long periods of time! The moment I become aware of any success in these endeavors, I feel deep satisfaction and even pride in accomplishment. Unfortunately, in that same moment, I am no longer a servant but am in fact being served by the experience. The advisability—nay, the necessity—of engaging in a constant and repetitive phenomenological “bracketing” of these feelings—that might, after all, limit my effectiveness as a therapist or teacher—becomes starkly apparent. Fortunately, with an almost Daoist cyclical inevitability, ample reminders of limitations to my competence come as well, as I mispronounce words or my aging memory chooses just that moment to play a game of hide and seek with facts, names, dates, or concepts.

Can you spell S-A-B-B-A-T-I-C-A-L? Sure. I knew you could.

— Drake Spaeth

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