“The best test (of a servant-leader) and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” — Don Frick, a conference presenter.

These audacious but practical concepts were highlighted in La Crosse on June 26-28 at a Viterbo-sponsored conference where such ideas and both business and nonprofit applications came alive.

The Servant Leadership billing featured “Emerging Leaders,” many of whom were local. The concepts originate from Robert Greenleaf, the father of Servant Leader principles that are taught at Viterbo’s Masters of Servant Leadership program, the only one in the country.

Alice Holstein


On Thursday, I thought I was just going to an ordinary day of those mostly local speakers.

It took me one introductory speech, by Don Weber, to realize I was in rare company.

Weber shared that his greatest learning has come from failures that have been his greatest teachers

The roster of other speakers that day and the next blew me away with their presence and wisdom, not sharing book-learning but rather their own experience implementing Greenleaf’s work.

There were some persistent themes.

One was the necessity of creating and tending a strong culture that embodies Servant Leader practices. This is something you cannot see or touch but which you can feel when the boss leaves the room.

Both Anne Finch, LHI CEO, and Festival Foods founder Dave Skogen took us through some illuminating how-to’s.

Another theme from nearly half the dozen presenters echoed Weber’s point, that it is OK to fail — but knowing how to handle it is critical to positive learning.

Skogen added that some friction is essential for growth. On the other hand, said one speaker, there is a need to protect the radicals in an organization.

The notion of leaders as spirit carriers or warriors or hero-makers suggested the nobility of the leader profession, which is other than managing.

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This requires people who can tap into spirituality or higher wisdom.

Don Frick, Greenleaf’s biographer, spoke about the need for reflection time so that you are able to notice the subtle nudges.

Keynoter Margaret Wheatley emphasized this reflection theme as well as being grounded in a spiritual practice and knowing what you are ultimately faithful to. Greenleaf believed the ability to listen is the most important requirement for leaders; Wheatley proposed that when people do deep listening, people heal themselves.

She suggested that our current disconnections and societally destructive seeds mean we should form islands of sanity by energizing local leadership.

Don’t try to save the world, but start with a few people asking some important questions. She quoted Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can with what you have where you’re at.”

Wheatley’s measured words were rich and profound, encouraging a long, snaking line to purchase her latest book, “Who Do We Choose To Be?” She suggested that the two best learning organizations she worked with were a unit of the U.S. Army and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The word love also came up as not foreign to a Servant Leader.

Jim Kingen, human resources partner at Southwest Airlines, described some of the characteristics of how its founder, Herb Kelleher, built the business on that concept, encouraging employees to be family and truly serve the customer.

Despite the lofty ideas about service, the conference yielded many practical tips.

Beyond the presentations, the conference itself was an example of Servant Leadership in action. Moderator Tom Thibodeau was generously thankful for all the people and background elements that went into executing such excellence and loving detail.

He modeled the idea that stories, song and ritual create a meaningful experience, at one point singing to us, or leading us in song, or facilitating “engagement exercises” which got us on our feet, interacting with others.

Energy, even joy, was released despite the theater accommodations. The way the conference was conducted was as profound as the presentations. Another exciting realization was the fact that so many in the audience are evidence of a culture of Servant Leadership that is alive and growing in our region.

We are blessed.

I left the conference with a full heart, knowing that I had been changed and enlarged. I had learned first-hand that “Service is love made visible.” These had been extraordinary days.

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Alice A. Holstein, Ed.D., is a former Organization Development consultant, college instructor and author. Her website is www.aliceholstein.net.