2015-01-22

By Dr. Max Klau, Vice President of Leadership Development, City Year, Inc.

Here at City Year, we often state that service and leadership development represent the “twin strands” of City Year’s DNA. Both of these elements are absolutely essential and interconnected to the national service experience. The unique power of City Year—and national service in general—is that it is an intense and long-term experience with the potential to unleash the significant, transformational potential of both of these elements in an integrated way.

Personally, I have always found service to be a profound experience. But I’ve had many conversations with others in which it was clear that their service experiences fell flat.  I remember talking to someone who had committed to tutor an elementary school student in an urban school for an hour once a week. The only training he received was some basic tips on effective literacy tutoring, and some logistical reminders about his weekly appointments. He kept it up for a year, but he made it clear that the experience had been, shall we say, underwhelming. He did not see much academic progress in his student and he did not feel much of a relational connection to the boy.  It was clear that the experience had not led to much soul-searching or inquiry into the underlying causes of educational inequality.

Service, when detached from any meaningful approach to leadership development, can feel transactional. It is possible to dedicate time to serving others, and emerge essentially unchanged. We give some time and effort, and walk away with no great insights about ourselves, those we serve, or the larger systems and contexts generating the circumstances that make our service necessary in the first place.

As a scholar of leadership development and a participant in personal growth experiences, I’ve witnessed the power of connecting with one’s deepest sources of purpose and meaning; I’ve watched people confront their fears, set personal goals, and commit to an intense and ongoing pursuit of personal growth and development.

The danger here, though, is that leadership development disconnected from service to others can easily slide into narcissism. The turning of attention inward to focus on one’s own growth can become a permanent state of affairs. We can end up obsessed with our own “dragons,” or overly prideful of our own perceived inner progress—all while being largely blind to the question of whether our lives are having any positive impact on the world around us.

Both of these experiences are possible when we pursue either service or leadership development in isolation. Neither suffice to create the transformational change that is required if we are to succeed at addressing our nation’s greatest challenges

When we combine high-impact service with meaningful leadership development, we unleash the power of genuine transformation. We begin creating real, measurable, positive change in the world around us while engaging in the type of genuine personal growth and deep learning that actually strengthens our capacity to be of service to others. This is how real change becomes possible.

We are motivated to pursue leadership development because we are awake to the connection between our own growth and development and our capacity to be of service to others, and we engage in service to others as our core strategy for developing and growing ourselves. Like the twin strands of the DNA, the two dimensions of experience combine to form both a structure and a process that sits at the very heart of life itself.

City Year was founded on the belief that national service had a unique power to access the full transformational potential of these two integrated forces. Are we unleashing that full potential? That is the question that we each must ask ourselves each and every day.

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