A Servant’s Power: Changing the Mindset of an Industry

Whether reflected in some ancient Greek tragedy, or in the latest superhero movie, the question about the ethical use of power has been a human concern for all of history. You might say choices about power have been the source of history itself. Ask people with disabilities. Their history has been largely determined by how others choose to use power. While other groups may ebb and flow out of empowerment, wax and wane from dominance to marginalization and back again, people with disabilities have been almost uniformly at the whim of the powerful, whoever that might be at the time. Recent history, with its institutions, segregations, and overseer ‘departments,’ is no exception. They way power is wielded by others shapes the history, the life story, of the supported person.  Accepting this as true, the industry as a whole needs an alternative model of power and leadership, a model that is effective in empowering others. Such a model is offered by servant leadership.

While its’ principles are found across cultural traditions and time periods, servant leadership was first cogently articulated by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s, addressing issues of leadership and the ethical use of power. Servant leadership is best understood in contrast to a power model of leadership. Within a power model of leadership, power is treated as an end in itself. Power is used as a means to acquire more power and control. For the servant leader, on the other hand, power is an instrument, power is a means to an end. For the servant leader, power is a tool used for the benefit of others. Greenleaf taught that the surest test of servant leadership was to ask whether those under the influence of a particular leader were growing as persons. If so, you have an example of a servant leader.

For our purposes, a clear contrast between a power model of leadership and a servant model can be found by looking at the recent history of our industry. The institutions of the past were firmly entrenched in a power model of leadership. This was almost a necessity given the tremendous number of people living within them. The great number of people required a high level of control exerted by a disproportionately small number of staff people. It is worth noting that prisons have the same model and concerns. In such settings, it is not about helping people grow as persons. In those institutions, it is little better than herding and housing, controlling everything to make the system more manageable for the staff who worked there.

The movement out of institutions may be seen as a shift toward servant leadership. Questions were asked about quality of life, personal needs and potentials, and how to support people to flourish rather than managing “a social problem.” This was a shift toward using power for the benefit of people with disabilities, rather than the control and management of them.

In many states (though sadly not all) people have moved out of institutions, new regulations have been promulgated to protect and support the dignity of people with disabilities, and powerful voices continue to advocate for full inclusion. Despite these changes, one obstacle that we continue to struggle with is an institutional mindset, which is really just a power model mindset. Every way in which our industry continues to segregate people with disabilities into special groups of ‘peers’, categorize them with special labels like ‘individual’, decide where they ought to live, or make decisions about supports which are really just about supporting staff and management, we are operating according to a power model. People’s growth is limited as a result.

We still have a long way to go. In many places we’ve succeeded to help people leave the institutions. Now its time to help staff and management leave as well. Servant leadership, using our power for the flourishing of others, provides a different model, a person centered model rather than a system centered model. People have left and are leaving the institutions established by a power model of thinking, now it’s time to do away with the power model thinking itself.