by • April 29, 2013 • Leading, Leaders and LeadershipComments (6)2538

A Seat at the Table

Saturday morning, I walked into a church for the first time in many, many years. While our beliefs are worlds apart, I couldn’t fathom not being there for one of my best friends as his over seven year path to the priesthood culminated in a beautiful ceremony. I’m saving thoughts and reflections about our journey through spirituality and friendship for another post (and after I’ve had more time to truly reflect on the day and the history that brought us there), but I wanted to share a brief thought about something else today.

The bishop giving the homily at the mass spoke of service. He asked a question from the gospel that has very real implications for higher education and our work in student affairs.

“Who is greater? The one who sits at the table, or the one who serves”

At first glance, the answer seems simple. Leadership as service is a popular conception, and with good reason. We speak of the role of a leader as one who serves and works in service of a greater good or goal. This higher calling of a leader is, paradoxically for some, to act in ‘lowly’ service.

This question, however, implies that those who sit at the table remain fixed and stubborn in their position. Their is an implied dichotomy that one who sits at the table cannot, or will not, trade places with or make room for one who has yet to pull up a chair. Sitting at the table seems to imply a level of privilege and status, neither of which are cast in the most positive of lights. The moral of this short story seems to be act and lead, or sit and do nothing.

Is it possible to serve while sitting at the table? 

As I continue to progress through my career in student affairs, I’ve seen leadership in action take many forms. My introduction to the field was through the ‘in the trenches’ work this question highlights – spending long hours setting up and taking down events, arriving on campus almost before the sun was up for orientation and spending time with as many students as possible for more hours than there are in a typical day. Now, I spend more time in meetings and at my desk than I do on the front lines. Does this mean I am serving students less? Is my service quantifiably different now?

I’ve come to see my time ‘at the table’, whether the boardroom oval or my desk, as a new avenue for impact. I may not be working directly with students in real time, but I still see my work behind the scenes as service. There is of course a unique and privileged power I possess being able to send emails and make phone calls that impact our students’ experience, but I see it as an opportunity to expand the breadth and reach of my work, in service, ultimately (as I think it should be) for our students.

What about you? Can you be at the table and still be of service to your students?

Can you serve by sitting?

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6 Responses to A Seat at the Table

  1. Dana McNulty says:

    What a wonderful post, Lisa. I really love the consideration that serving can encompass many types of actions. So many times we think upper level administration is no longer about the students. While there usually is a challenge of still feeling connected, their work can pave the way for better service for our students. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Jean Ette says:

    Empowering others to serve should have the greatest-reaching impact in an organization. This is often times what a “at the table” leader does. Creating, developing, and maintaining systems that empower people to overcome their inertia/fear is critical to the effectiveness of any progress to be made.

    Look at Destination Imagination 😉 all those guides, organizational charts, rubrics and check lists enable nearly anyone to volunteer their time in an effective way. Who made them? People who serve by sitting. If the guides evaporated, I don’t think the tournaments would be able to function, most certainly not in a consistent manner.

    I’m not suggesting that sitting on a board automagically means that an individual has fulfilled their potential. It is how an individual uses that position which determines whether they are serving others or just their ego. The culture/attitude of the board is also going to have a drastic effect on the ability of board members to truly serve.

  3. joeginese says:

    To answer your last question – yes, yes you can.

    First follower = first at the table, encouraging others to join, showing others it is okay, and being the ambassador/advocate for awesome (to steal your language) for the cause.

    So can you serve by sitting? I’d say you do more of a service by sitting than by standing but that’s arguable. Ask me tomorrow and I might disagree with myself 🙂

  4. Thanks for the great comments! I think Jeanette hit the nail on the head with “Creating, developing, and maintaining systems that empower people to overcome their inertia/fear is critical …”. I hope to be the kind of leader that builds opportunities for others to be their best self and use their strengths before getting the heck out of the way. I can do that ‘in the trenches’, sitting at the table, or some combination of both. I’m happy to advocate for the awesomeness of others and create spaces for others to shine in service to a greater goal.

  5. Sam Davidson says:

    Another important question – or would you rather build the table? A lot must happen behind the scenes first to give others a chance to sit and serve.

  6. Great point Sam. Many of us face an uphill battle in trying to sit at a table that doesn’t ‘feel’ or ‘fit’ right. Having the opportunity to build the table, maybe picking out the type of wood or actually ‘getting our hands dirty’ in sawing some boards, would make for a richer and more meaningful leadership experience. As a leader, I hope to be the one sawing away to build a fantastic table for my colleagues to sit at – and then push my chair back to stay out of the way while they do amazing work.

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