Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Servant-Leadership and Gawad Kalinga

Servant-Leadership and Gawad Kalinga

The term servant-leadership often came up during my interviews of Gawad Kalinga officers, when I watched videos, or read articles about GK for my dissertation research. Other terms were also used, but servant-leadership seemed to be an integral and guiding concept of GK’s activities. What exactly is servant leadership and how does it fit in GK’s community development model?

To help me understand this term, I looked up Robert K. Greenleaf’s (1904-1990) 1977 seminal essay entitled The Servant as Leader, where he first coined and defined it for a western audience. Greenleaf, a 40-year management research director at AT &T, organized the Center for Applied Ethics in 1964, later renamed The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership in 1985. He founded the Greenleaf Center to promote the virtues of service to others, a holistic approach to work which emphasizes community, and the sharing of power in decision-making to leaders and institutions. Greenleaf’s inspiration for the essay came from reading Herman Hesse’s 1932 novella, Journey to the East, a story about a group of religious men who go on a pilgrimage to the East to learn the ultimate truth. Leo, the central figure of the story, joins the group as a servant and sustains the party through his presence, song, spirit, character, and rapport with both men and animals. Despite the difficult journey, the group proceeds until Leo disappears. The group disintegrates eventually due to conflict, dissension, and bickering. The journey is abandoned and the group disbands, disillusioned and unhappy. The narrator, autobiographically named H.H., finally finds Leo after years of desperate searching. He discovers that the servant Leo was actually the head of the religious sect, “its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader” (Greenleaf 1997[1977]:429).

The story of Leo is of the great leader who was first a servant. Greenleaf realized that being a servant to others is the key to greatness as a leader. “Deep down inside”, authentic, transformational leaders are by nature servants to others. He defined a servant-leader as someone who wants to serve first, and then through “conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (Greenleaf 1977[1997]:434. This perspective inverts the common notion of leadership- I lead in order to serve-- by prioritizing the needs of others first. A servant leader is deemed effective if those being served “become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” (Greenleaf 1997 [1977]:434).

Deciding to serve reveals the initiative of an individual. Greenleaf notes that when a servant decides to become a leader, he/she says “come join me in this…”. The initiative of an individual is matched by the response of a group of individuals or the community. The link that keeps the leader and the followers together is that the leader manages to articulate the way for others in a compelling manner.

Doesn’t the story of Leo and how Greenleaf first described servant-leadership parallel Gawad Kalinga’s use of the term? The parallels become clearer when we look at the 10 essential characteristics of a servant-leader. Larry Spears, retiring President and CEO of the Greenleaf Center lists these as: (1) a deep commitment to listening to others and clarifying the will of the group, (2) empathy towards and understanding others, (3) healing of self and others of “broken spirits” and emotional hurts, (4) awareness- a disturbing, awakening, self awareness, especially on issues of ethics and values, (5) persuasion- the ability to build consensus within the group or team, (6) conceptualization- the broader-based conceptual thinking of a group or institution’s vision, mission, and goals, (7) foresight- the ability to relate the lessons of the past to the present situation, and the implications of the future in decisions or actions to be made, (8) stewardship- holding institutions in trust for the betterment of society, (9) commitment to the growth of people, especially their personal, professional, and spiritual growth, and, (10) building community- in response to the disintegration of communities in the face of the hegemony of institutions in shaping contemporary society (Spears 2002:5-8).

As a movement, servant-leadership is gaining ground in the United States with such companies as Southwest Airlines, Synovus Financial Corp., The Men’s Wearhouse, among others, adopting servant-leadership as a guiding philosophy for their respective company mission statements. It is also applicable in education and training of NGO trustees, community leadership programs, service-learning programs, leadership education, personal transformation, and in multiculturalism. The last point is significant. Latina leadership consultant Juan Bordas noted, women, minorities, and eastern cultures have long traditions of servant-leadership that are holistic, communal, spiritual, and intuitive (Spears 2002:13).
Gawad Kalinga is an ambitious community development cum nation building movement seeking to address poverty in Philippine slums. In 2003, it initiated “GK777” to build 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities, in seven years through volunteers in “padugo”- modeling change first and then “bleeding” for the cause in heroic proportions. It has since built nearly 20,000 homes in nearly 900 communities for the poorest of the poor. It initiated activities in five other countries with intentions of going global. Logistical support initially came from at least 100,000 core volunteers, mostly members of the proponent Catholic lay ministry, Couples for Christ. In 2006, GK initiated “GK1MB” to recruit one million hero (“bayani”) volunteers or servants to geometrically increase homebuilding and community development activities. GK has offices in 20 countries. GK claims it does not actively ask donations and lets potential supporters discern how they can help. Yet, it has received pledges to construct one million homes. GK sites are supposedly “non-sectarian, multi-sectoral, non-partisan and non-discriminatory” and are developed through “caring and sharing of time and resources, massive mobilization of volunteers and partners, and patriotism in action”. Each volunteer is a hero (bayani) to one another leading to community-wide cooperation (bayanihan). Bayanihan is replicated and scaled up until nation (bayan) building starts. Thus, it looks to me that GK is community-driven, taps disparate social networks, addresses household livelihood security issues, and heals social divisions, through “celebratory and non-confrontational” interaction. All these are anchored by the inculcation of servant-leadership at all levels and in “padugo”, which are basically Filipino culture traits.

The Philippines actually has a culture of servant-leadership. Katrin de Guia, Ph.D. in her book Kapwa: The Self in the Other (Anvil Books 2005) describes her journey of enlightenment, similar to that of Greenleaf’s, on the life-enhancing potentials of involvement, through caring and sharing, with others. The Pilipino word kapwa has more impact than the English word other, which only refers to someone else. It maybe due to the positioning of the vowels, but to de Guia, kapwa embodies Filipino personhood in that the self is bound up and shared with the other. It is a combination of the Self and the Other.

De Guia, a protégé of the late founder of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, Dr. Virgilio Enriquez, emphasized Enriquez’s postulation that kapwa made up the core of Filipino personhood. Inherent in kapwa then is caring, sharing, a sense of community and family, “an expanded sense of shared humanity” or kagandahang loob, katwiran (straightness), kalayaan (freedom, independence, and free will), talinhaga (imagery and vision), and lakaran (pilgrimage, sometimes for a cause). The Filipino value system in Sikolohiyang Pilipino is composed of the core values of kapwa- a shared identity, pakiramdam, and kagandahang loob. The core values are supplemented with surface values that “are ideals, standards, beliefs and rules that determine a people’s behavior in obvious ways” (de Guia 2005:30). Sometimes prone to biased interpretation because of a western-centric analytical lens, surface values are made up of confrontative surface values of bahala na (actually determination), lakas ng loob (guts), pakikibaka (resistance), and colonial/accommodative surface values of hiya (actually propriety/dignity), utang na loob (gratitude/solidarity) and pakikisama (companionships/esteem). The final associated values are societal in nature and reveal the “convictions deeply rooted in the ancestral heritage of Filipino people” (de Guia 2005:37). These include karangalan (dignity), katarungan (justice), and kalayaan (freedom).

Gawad Kalinga, as others have observed, is very much in consonance with servant-leadership, which is a truly Filipino cultural trait. While Leo may be a literary fictional character, the authentic servant leader to the majority Roman Catholic Filipinos is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the spiritual model and the most influential and effective leader in history especially with his work with 12 ordinary, inexperienced men (Blanchard 2002:xi). Gawad Kalinga has a keen understanding of what Stephen Covey (2002:32-33) notes are the four needs of people. The first need is to live in order to survive. The second need is to love and to relate to other people. The third need is to grow, develop, and use the available talents, meaning, to learn. The fourth need is create value, to make a difference, to leave a legacy. Work in Gawad Kalinga addresses the need to live, love, learn, and leave a legacy. In the process it builds healthy, functional communities.

Gawad Kalinga attracts people of all classes and talents who have discerned that they are willing to serve others, to be a kapwa to fellow Filipinos, especially the poorest of the poor. It has also attracted foreigners and expatriate Filipinos who, want to actualize these four fundamental human needs. Tony Meloto, GK founder, has a lifetime of stories of struggle including physical problems, that inspired him to organize GK. Briton Dylan Wilk, for example, talks of being so unhappy while being rich that he questioned the moral value of his wealth. He has never been happier in life until he discovered Gawad Kalinga, where he eventually met his wife and the mother of his daughter. Issa Santos-Cuevas experienced tragedy in her life, but transformed her sorrow and became a servant-leader. Together with Luis Oquiñena and others, they are the core of youth servant-leaders who gave GK founder Tony Meloto the manpower to do their first mass home build. Boy Montelibano underwent years of talinhaga and a philosophical, analytical lakaran to find out what would be the best development model. Because he, like Churchill, realized that socialism equalized misery while capitalism bred unequal sharing of blessings, his lakaran eventually led him to Gawad Kalinga. Raul Dizon realized that urban violence, which victimized his son, needed to be addressed. To him, Gawad Kalinga provided a way to address this. He now works in GK Baseco in what was once the biggest slums in Metro Manila.

Gawad Kalinga is the embodiment of servant-leadership as defined by Greenleaf. It is about kapwa. When a fellow anthropologist asked what it would take for the rich, industrialized citizens of the west to give up their privileges so that poverty, inequality, and environmental impacts could be addressed, Gawad Kalinga came to mind. In the Philippines, I responded, many social engineering experiments have been initiated. Still the country's intractable problems linger. However, there is tacit agreement that Filipinos are averse to a civil war, right wing military junta, or communism. Thus, many sectors of society are betting (and committing resources) that the Gawad Kalinga model can be used for "nation building". When the rich work with the poor, the rich are actually the ones benefiting. When the rich, powerful, or educated help the poor, it somehow transforms them, and meets some emotional, psychological, legacy, or moral need or yearning. This transformation is supposed to be the praxis of rich-poor interaction.

So back to the question of what will it take for the haves to give up their privileges? It may have to include individual spiritual and moral conversion, or serendipitous-ness, or transformation moving up to the community level, infecting business and institutions, and forcing the hand of government to do what is just. The late Jesuit historian and visionary, Horacio dela Cost,a once wrote that for the Philippine nation to develop to the best of its abilities and potential, the Filipino people must do three things, namely: (a) build and strengthen communities; (b) link the communities with common goals-ideally national goals; and, (c) recapture the bureaucracy. Culture trumps all and Gawad Kalinga may be one cultural model for nation building.

As Tony Meloto and Boy Montelibano note, it’s an exciting time to be a Filipino.


De Guia, Katrin (2005). Kapwa: The Self I the Other- Worldviews and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers. Anvil Publishing, Inc. Pasig City, Philippines.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1977). The Servant as Leader. IN Leadership: Understanding the Dynamics of Power and Influence in Organizations. Robert P. Vecchio, Editor. University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, pp. 429-438.

Spears, Larry C. and Michele Lawrence, Editors. (2002) Focus on Leadership: Servant-Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. John Wiley % & Sons, Inc.
____Blanchard, Ken (2002). Foreword: The Heart of Servant Leadership, ix-xii.
____Covey, Stephen R. (2002). Servant-Leadership and Community Leadership in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 27-34.
____Spears, Larry C. (2002). Introduction: Tracing the Past, Present, and Future of Servant-Leadership, pp. 1-18.