Servant Leaders Drive Civic Innovation

Civic innovation comes in many forms, and all of its forms are necessary for a growing, healthy community. Yet, innovation from a social science perspective is far more difficult when we consider all of the compounding factors people bring to the table. Over the course of time, events and outside factors force change upon us all. Each generation must adapt to its new world and in these moments, the seeds of civic innovation are planted. We are witnessing the impact of technology and the Internet on people’s abilities to communicate, organize, and, in many cases, change the world around them. Leaders grow from these moments and many times their ideas make our lives better. However, what happens when the moment passes? Who are the most important innovation leaders afterwards? In my experience, leaders and their innovative ideas can be found everywhere.

Every community needs civic participation in order to be prosperous. In reality leaders like Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa are rare, and communities cannot afford to wait for the next great leader to emerge. Servant leaders are unique in their style of leadership because they care deeply about people. Their ability to motivate people to change by helping them remove obstacles cannot only change a life, it can change a whole city. Servant leaders put others before themselves. They listen, they are empathetic with a strong sense of stewardship, they are committed to the growth of people, and in short, they build communities.

Who are the servant leaders in your neighborhood? What would happen if you put those individuals in a room together to solve problems? How many innovative ideas might be realized? Obviously, there is nothing new with the idea of leaders sitting in a room and talking about solving problems, but I am not talking about our elected officials, religious leaders, business leaders, or educators. I am talking about the elderly woman living on the corner that started a garden to feed her less fortunate neighbors. What about the former city tennis champion who organized a park cleanup day in an effort to save the green space where she learned to play tennis? Think about the man who is at the elementary school every morning walking kids to the door, doing so with the intent to serve as a positive male role model. I am talking about you, the reader. Sure, the new, sensational big ideas are the ones that get all the fanfare. But in truth, the small acts of compassion and leadership through example are what drive civic participation. People who conduct their lives in this way many times do not view themselves as being leaders, but the perspective in which they view the world around them happens to be the most fertile soil for the seeds innovative ideas.

All of the examples just given are of real servant leaders here in Chattanooga. These people are no different from you or me, and none of them viewed themselves as a leader in the beginning. Their ideas and hard work, when combined with willing organizations and civic leaders, have resulted in a policy that is a recommended national best practice, the Chattanooga Mobile Market, playgrounds, more walkable communities, and a new capacity for servant leadership in their communities. These innovative ideas have touched the lives of over 100,000 people and they came from servant leaders. Christopher Reeve once said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” Just imagine how great our community can be if all the servant leaders out there started working together on common goals. All of a sudden, the impossible dream is an inevitable reality.

Over the course of the past five years as the Step ONE Program Manager, John Bilderback has played a major role in the creation of the Partnership for Healthy Living and is the project director for Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga, a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant funded by the Robert Wood Johnson FoundationJohn is a graduate of UTC, where he received a Master’s degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology. 

“Sure, the new, sensational big ideas are the ones that get all the fanfare. But in truth, the small acts of compassion and leadership through example are what drive civic participation. ”