I had the awesome privilege of working with a true servant leader several years ago during my year of service as an Americorps VISTA.  Steve Nagle is the executive director of West Central Minnesota Communities Action where I coordinated the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp.  At the time, I was not fully aware of what a “servant leader” was; however, hindsight has revealed I was being mentored by an amazing leader who had a profound impact on who I am and how I work within the context of community.  Recently, Steve and I had the opportunity to discuss his role as a leader within the Community Action Partnership.

Steve began his career as an educator, however, he only taught briefly before he began working with the Community Youth Corps, a program for disadvantaged teens.  It was here that he discovered his passion for human services and after working as a community action case manager for several years began his graduate studies in public and human service administration at Moorhead State University.  There he said he learned three things that formed his leadership style today: 1) he learned how to use a computer, 2) he became more sensitive to harassment and discrimination issues, especially those directed towards women, and 3) he became aware of people’s “busy talk”, how annoying it is to listen to, and how he makes an effort to not feed into that mindset.

Admittedly, I was expecting to hear about profound leadership concepts that were conveyed to Steve at Moorhead State.  I was expecting to hear amazing theories that led to the development of an amazing leader.  However, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it more, my expectations were a result of my employment in an academic environment.  Steve is not that type of guy.  He’s your average Joe with a heart of gold that cares deeply for helping people lift themselves out of poverty.  That is what makes Steve a great leader.  He was born to organize individuals into teams and lead teams to organize communities in making change for the common good.  These skills cannot be learned in graduate school, only fostered and nurtured.

Even though you may have a natural gift for organizing people you can still have doubts or concerns about certain projects along the way.  I asked Steve to tell me about a project with a high risk of failure that he trusted would succeed.  It was the Group Work/Cares Camp program that WCMCA has been offering in their five-county region for the past 10 years, a housing program that I had the privilege of coordinating as an Americorps VISTA during its second year.  The program brings together over 450 youth volunteers from across the United States to West Central Minnesota.  They work alongside approximately 100 local adult volunteers to rehabilitate housing for elderly, disabled, and low-income individuals.  Steve was initially nervous about the program because he foresaw all these young people descending upon our communities and going bonkers.  It also seemed like a potential logistical disaster with the needed coordination of people, equipment, funds, and governmental cooperation over such a wide geographical distance.  The project would have an enormous positive impact on our communities if it was successful, so it was worth the risk.  Steve decided to trust his gut intuition that all would be well instead of listening to the fears his mind generated.  Everyone rallied together to make the project a huge success and it continues to be one of WCMCA’s largest volunteer driven programs.

While effective leaders experience the freedom of spirit that happens when things go beautifully right, they also experience those instances of feeling stifled in their leadership.  Steve related a situation that has been a tripping point for him for the last two years.  He asked the local director of a federal program hosted by WCMCA to research practices of a successful volunteer tax preparation program in another part of Minnesota.  Steve thought this would be a good fit with the local director’s duties as the majority of volunteers in the tax prep program are also participants in the federal program.  When the state office became aware that their local director had been asked to manage the tax prep program for WCMCA, Steve was told this was not permissible and found himself in a bit of hot water.  This has caused him two years of distraction – having to travel several times to the Twin Cities to answer to the program office, dealing with a mound of paperwork, and facing the possibility of having this valuable program taken away from their agency.  Steve did not feel his request was asking anything inappropriate of the director or the program, and is unsure why this particular instance became a stumbling point.  Shortly after the issue was raised the local director retired, leaving Steve with lots of questions.  It has caused him stress over the last two years, and has distracted him from supporting his agency team as fully as he would like.

Steve appreciated the support of WCMCA’s board of directors during the difficult process of the last two years, and their commitment to him and the agency over the last 13 years.  The board is comprised of one-third elected officials, one-third private sector representatives, and one-third low-income individuals elected by the people the agency serves.  This board make-up is set at the national level, and was proposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the War on Poverty.  Community Action is “dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other” (CAP, 2008), and involving the people they serve in leadership opportunities is an important aspect of the agency’s mission.  Board member selection is based upon what resources a member can provide to further the progress of WCMCA.  Steve attributes a good portion of the agency’s success to having a consistently dedicated board.

WCMCA has developed a dedicated board by making them feel appreciated.  Simple acts like having a light supper prior to board meetings, providing a kitchenette in the break room and monthly potlucks organized by each department help to create an environment in which people feel appreciated.  Outside the break/board room is a patio complete with a grill and picnic table that is well used in the summertime by the staff.  I can remember several instances of impromptu cookouts when Steve would show up with a package of sausage and buns, drawing people outside for a moment to chat and have a “snack”.  I asked Steve where WCMCA’s “food culture” came from.  He said he thought it came with him – food is important to him, it brings people together and most people enjoy it – and it just seems to work in rallying people together.

When I contacted Steve Nagle for this conversation he said he didn’t have a clue what servant leadership was about.  Even though Steve may not know the ins and outs of the theory and practice, he is a true servant leader to his core.  There are many points made by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader from Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness (2002) that I see Steve understanding at a gut level.

But the leader needs more than inspiration.  He ventures to say, ‘I will go; come with me!’  He initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success.  He says, ‘I will go, follow me!’ when he knows that the path is uncertain, even dangerous.  And he trusts those who go with him. (p. 28)  This was my experience of Steve’s leadership style when I worked at WCMCA.  If he knew people needed help, and there was a program to help them, he would rally up support around the agency to join the cause.

Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much. (p. 32)  Actually, this is one thing Steve said he did learn at graduate school.  This quote kept coming back to me as he was talking about the situation where he was feeling stifled in his leadership.  In his efforts to try to justify and explain himself to the state office things became messier.  Steve did not suggest that withholding information would have made the problem go away (lack of transparency) but perhaps just accepting the initial communication and moving on would have brought about a quicker resolution.

An institution starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first. (p. 54)  Steve’s number one priority is the people that WCMCA serves, not his position or anyone else’s at the agency.  Steve had started our conversation talking about having a difficult day because he needed to lay off a number of people at the agency.  He was distressed because not only did he not want to have to say goodbye to these employees, but it also meant they would not be able to serve as many people because of the staff reduction.  I recall the numerous times I had the chance to hear Steve speak to government officials about the work WCMCA was doing in their communities.  His stories were always about client successes and never a pat on the back for the agency.

The great leader is seen as servant first. (p. 21)  Of all the things that I learned from Steve, this is the most important aspect of being a great leader.  A lot of good work is accomplished by WCMCA not because Steve has his hand in all the projects, but because he trusts everyone on his team to get the job done well.  Steve is there to offer support.  He is there to offer advice or to lend a helping hand if needed.  He may recommend someone else’s assistance if he thinks they have something to contribute.  Otherwise Steve steps back and allows the project coordinators to shine.  He trusts the team he has assembled will be successful in their work.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Steve Nagle for mentoring me in leadership.  He modeled a people-centered style of leadership that I have adopted in turn.  Steve showed me how you can simultaneously have fun, get the job done, and build relationships that will serve you for future projects.  I learned the most work is accomplished when the leader is present to support the team in getting their jobs done, and trusting that they will do just that.  What I appreciate most is Steve never judged my abilities because I was a client of WCMCA before working there, in fact he saw my experience as a program client an asset in serving others through the program I coordinated.  My life is richer for knowing Steve Nagle and I hope to share that richness with everyone I serve as a leader.


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