RECAP – Servant Leadership: the Crux of Holding Public Office

Servant leadership in public office, a topic that has not been discussed enough in Ethiopia, is a mindset of giving priority to those being served.  As election is nearing, by issue, we feel citizens could be informed what serves them best.  AWiB believes an uninformed citizen is an unserved citizen.  Raising and discussing the issue of “Servant Leadership” is a contribution to an effective and efficient bureaucracy.  Government officials are chosen to serve the public’s needs.  Powers and responsibilities are conveyed to these officials.  The power given to one official affects the lives of many.  This power should be managed carefully and not abused. Having the mindset of serving the public first can be very rewarding.  Serving is giving to a larger purpose without selfishness.  It is not simply serving every desire and wish of the public but serving their real needs.

What are the principles behind servant leadership?  What steps should be taken to adopt it?  Why is it not common practice in Ethiopia?  On Thursday, April 1, 2021 AWiB’s monthly event took place with the theme Servant Leadership: The Crux of Holding Public Office at Hilton Hotel. AWiBers, speakers, and non-members networked over dinner before the program.

Abigeya Getachew, a Board member of AWiB, welcomed the crowd and invited the sponsors of the evening: Habesha Brewery, Awash Wine, and the United Insurance Company to say a few words and relay their message of corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Abigeya proceeded to welcome the speakers for the evening and asked them to the stage.

Abigeya opened the discussion by posing the question: How is servant leadership related to holding public office and serving?

Mr. Bezabih Gebreyes, the Ethiopian Civil Service Commission Commissioner, stated that Servant Leadership is serving others or your followers by humbling yourself and putting their needs before yours.  He mentioned that this concept goes back to the 15th century.  It was well practiced in the Catholic Church.  Selected paid public officials served the church and the people for a lifetime.  By the 17th century, this position became open to everyone, and officials were appointed through elections.

Roman Kifle (Ph.D.), the co-founder of AWiB and currently associate professor at St. Mary University, said that holding public office means serving your constituents.  She stated that in public offices, Servant Leadership is not being implemented.  A system to hold public officials accountable to serve first should be laid out and awareness should also be created.

Mr. Ameha Mekonnen, founder and director of Lawyers for Human Rights, stated that in our country Servant Leadership is relatively a new concept and we are not “there” yet.  In Ethiopia, holding public office was seen as an honor.  However, recently that is not the case.  Even though it’s not reason enough, the current phenomenon of serving the public irresponsibly is said due to the low payment.  Officials abuse their powers.  Ameha stated Servant Leadership is being practiced when officials serve the public by putting the public’s needs before their own.

Abigeya continued the discussion by asking another question to the guests:  How do Ethiopia’s cultures, beliefs, traditions, and values affect the implementation of the concept of Servant Leadership?

Ameha said there is a generally accepted assumption in Ethiopia that holding public office is for the purpose to be served but not serving the people; a prime case of abusing power.  Ethiopia is a country with diverse cultures, each with its unique tradition of viewing leadership.  So generalizing might be hard and needs vast research, says Ameha.  In our social culture Ethiopians are kind to one another and help out each other, but when we come to the political aspect one can generalize there is no empathy for the public and needs improvement.

Dr. Roman mentioned Ethiopians are kind to one another and we support each other during good and bad times.  But this is not the case when it comes to leadership.  Implementing the concept of Servant Leadership will take a long time, but it is possible due to our tradition of giving and supporting one another.

Bezabih said in Ethiopia politics and administration go hand in hand.  The administration has shown improvement while politics has not.  In our culture, some sayings portray public officials as untouchable.  In Servant Leadership theory, a leader must be ready to serve the needs of others.  In Ethiopia, since the establishment of ministerial administration in 1908, it was the needs of the rulers that were given priority over the public requests.  He stated that the institutional culture of Ethiopia is such that Servant Leadership is not practiced at a higher level of position.  Abuse of power is common in the institutional culture.

Abigeya then directed the third segment to Dr. Roman:  What are the principles of Servant Leadership and steps to be taken for the implementation of this concept?

Dr. Roman started by mentioning there are several forms and styles of leadership with their unique characters.  The most important part lies in how we can incorporate the mindset of Servant Leadership into those leadership styles.  Servant Leadership is a timeless concept that continues to grow, influence, and impact.  She stated it is a framework that advocates serving first.  She referenced Robert Greenleaf the person who coined the term “Servant Leadership” in one of his essays.  Greenleaf defined Servant Leadership as Leadership where the leader is a servant first.  Servant Leaders make sure the needs with the highest priorities are being served.  In Servant Leadership, one who is being served or following should develop as a person.  One should ask if the people one is serving are growing as individuals.  Dr. Roman stated Servant Leadership begins with a conscious desire to serve and inspire others.  It is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s success emanates from the success of the organization.  The traditional leader’s main focus is the success of the organization, but when this focus is shifted to servant leadership the leaders themselves benefit along with the employees, leading to the success of the organization.  Dr. Roman mentioned that a leader thinks and shows positivity, benevolence, and open-mindedness towards his/her followers, first looking to benefit them.  She continued, some of the most well-known Servant Leaders in the world are Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for racial equality, Nelson Mandela who had compassion for his peoples’ need, Mahatma Gandhi who believed in unselfish deeds and Mother Teresa who lived all her life committed to doing selfless endeavors.

Dr. Roman mentioned Servant Leadership is not a style that a leader adopts when they think is appropriate but rather it is a mindset that affects each leadership style a leader wishes to adopt.  To be a servant you have to listen, empathize, heal yourself and others, be self-aware, persuasive, committed, and so on.  She stated that it is not a skill we need to develop but rather a character to develop.  No single road map has been set to implement the Servant Leadership mindset, and the roadmap is unique to each organization.  It is a very long process to implement the concept and practice.  There are standards and procedures to be followed in institutions, and there is a hierarchy that, if not followed, will be chaotic.  She stated it is important to integrate Servant Leadership within this hierarchy.

People relate transformational leadership to Servant Leadership, but the distinguishing factor is when you change your primary focus from the organization to the followers.  Lastly, Dr. Roman emphasized that in Servant Leadership the work you do is not about you, what you want, or what you think it is for the greater good.  She finished off her response by quoting Nancy Ortberg, a renowned author:  “Serving means when a person leaves my sphere of influence he or she will be a better person or leaders because of the time spent there.”

Abigeya directed the next question to Bezabih about how government officials can balance their private needs with their responsibilities despite external factors.

Bezabih stated changing one’s mindset to be a Servant Leader is not an easy thing to do.  It needs to be practiced thoroughly.  We, humans, have unlimited needs and wants; it is a natural phenomenon.  The question lies in how we prevent these needs and wants from affecting our responsibilities as public officials.  This could be a million-dollar question.  During recruitment taking one’s beliefs, culture, and the social relations as a standard for selection and measure of competence should be a common practice.  But in reality, we only check their educational and professional backgrounds, stated Bezabih.  He stated in our country the biggest challenges of the civil service lie in the lack of freedom from the government.  There is political involvement and pressure in the institutions.  Several factors are accountable for holding back the government institutions from serving the public efficiently, but these factors are not being addressed.  He mentioned East Asia as best practice of Servant Leadership.  They practice it through their social relationship which can also be seen in public offices.  Bezabih said Servant Leadership is currently a phenomenon that cannot stand alone and must be practiced alongside the other theories of leadership.  He suggests selecting people who have the characteristics of Transformational Leadership to serve the public is necessary to impact the true sense of public service, implementing the cultures and essence of Servant Leadership.

The moderator asked Ameha what the weaknesses of our country’s politicians and officials are in implementing Servant Leadership.

Ameha responded that in Ethiopia some people practice Servant Leadership by some percentage in their sphere of influence.  But when we come to leadership in general, the practice is very far from Servant Leadership; rather it was repressive.  People were not allowed to voice their opinions and some were arrested for doing so.  When we see our country’s history, Servant Leadership has not been practiced at all.  He said that in the present we cannot say there is no repressive government.  We are still at an infant stage of transformation.  However, there have been some remarkable changes in the exclusion of political influence from some entities that are now enjoying more freedom than before.

Abigeya asked Bezabih what steps or initiatives are being taken to improve the efficiency of the service provided by the government offices?

Bezabih answered research has been done by international and local organizations to find out what factors are affecting the efficiency of government offices.  The finding indicated that the main factor or issue was the lack of freedom to work.  External bodies are influencing the work they do, which in turn causes inefficiency.  He said politics always influences the decisions made and the service provided.  The civil service in Ethiopia is not goal-oriented, but rather focuses on steps to be taken or the “methodology used” as Bezabih quoted.  The impact of the steps to be taken is not considered.  To improve the efficiency of public offices, removing the politicization of the instructions is one initiative.  He suggests steps should be taken to create a system that is completely free from political influence and a platform for officials to develop their skills.  He asserts developing the Servant Leadership mindset throughout the institutions will improve government offices’ effectiveness.  He mentioned there are programs implemented to change the system to e-governance to serve the public more efficiently.

Questions from the audience:

  1. Which is given priority: serving people or keeping the bureaucratic system?
  2. How can leadership skills be integrated into the education system in our country?
  3. What systems are implemented to monitor and hold public officials accountable?
  4. The hierarchy system is affecting the efficient-running of government offices; what steps are being taken to prevent this problem?
  5. How long will it take for the concept of Servant Leadership to be implemented in Ethiopia?
  6. Why is there an assumption that the concept of Servant Leadership is not prominent in the legal profession?

According to Bezabih, there are a number of problems in our country’s bureaucratic system and we need to work on them.  To improve the system affecting the service being provided, a website is being implemented.  On this website, all information a citizen might need is readily available.  However, Bezabih said, the enforcement of this system is difficult and might take a long time.  Initiatives and projects are underway to implement the single-window system that will improve efficiency in government offices.  This system is anticipated to hold officials accountable.  In other countries, the bureaucratic system is not as rigid and people can get their paperwork done without having to wait for the approval of a person in a higher position.  But that is not the case in our country.  Bezabih said this emanated from the greed for position and power, implying incompetence of that person.  If the government is not taking action to improve its efficiency, it is up to citizens to use their right to vote and be heard to take action.

Roman informed the audience that the Ministry of Education has plans to integrate skill development in the curriculum, but the problem lies in whether it will be implemented or not.  Even if leadership skills are not integrated into the educational system, Roman mentioned there are several platforms available to develop these skills such as AWiB.  She said some people are practicing Servant Leadership to some extent in Ethiopia, such as those who are involved in selfless deeds to help change others positively.  She gave parents as examples of servant leaders.  She also requested the speakers to share who they think shows Servant Leadership.

Bezabih mentioned his previous supervisor, who was also an AWiBer, as a servant leader.  He said she has all the traits of Servant Leadership and has made impacts and reforms everywhere she has worked.  Ameha mentioned Ethiopian Human Rights activist Professor Mesfin Woldemariam as a servant leader who had dedicated his life to the human right of Ethiopians.

Roman continued– the existence of a rigid hierarchy makes it difficult to implement and practice Servant Leadership.  The social cultures and traditions we have are not seen in public offices due to this rigid hierarchy.  She said different organizations exist and each needs to have its own leadership style.  The question lies in how they can integrate Servant Leadership in their respective styles.  She wrapped up by mentioning Servant Leadership is something that has been here for centuries but is still challenging to implement.

Ameha stated that comparison of sectors—when it comes to Servant Leadership practice—is hard as one cannot know deeply about each sector or profession.  For instance, the legal system has been used as a tool for administrators to enforce their ideology.  Today, we cannot say the legal system is completely free from the influence of the government but somewhat improving.  But the assumption that it is not might be, according to Ameha, the reason for the perception that Servant Leadership not practiced in the legal profession.

Abigeya thanked the panelists and the attendees.  AWiB 2021 President Kemer Temam presented the guests with gifts and wrapped up the night.

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