Written by Kevan McBeth- Chief Purpose Officer
Imagine being a 7 year old foster child.
Someone who shows up at a foster home, maybe looking for a fresh start in life. A safe place for a child or youth that may have been bounced around a little. But you may not have been fully appreciated in their last environment. You are scared, nervous, and unsure about your surroundings. And, to top it all off - you are totally vulnerable. This isn't your house, these people aren't your family. You don't truly know what is going to happen next.
Your brand new foster parent has seen your foster care file. They've read that you maybe didn't fit in at your last home. Maybe you even acted out, talked back or did something that you know you shouldn't have to show your displeasure. Maybe you weren't being treated very well. But the only thing that is in that file is the side of the foster parent or social worker that you have worked with through all the drama. Your foster parent sits down and reads you the riot act before you even get a chance to unpack your clothes in your new bedroom. They tell you this kind of behaviour isn't going to fly in this house. You're on notice before you even open your mouth to talk.
How would you feel if that happened to you? Pretty crappy I would expect.
Sadly, that scenario happens probably more often than not. But the Saskatchewan Foster Families Association Board of Directors are out to change that narrative for families and for children- they see a better way to parent, a better way to lead their organization - through servant leadership.
This past weekend, Scott and I were lucky enough to spend a day with the Saskatchewan Foster Families Association - a small Board of individuals (all of whom are foster parents themselves), dedicated to supporting and encouraging foster familes through education and advocacy. These are people who help create healthy homes, positive environments and brighter futures for children and youth in care across the province. I have to tell you- if you can't get up early on a Saturday morning to go work with these kinds of dedicated people, check your pulse- you may not have a heartbeat.
We were asked to come in and do a session with them on Servant Leadership, and I have to admit at times it felt like the students were leading the teachers.
These folks get it.
They understand the value of purpose, the importance of listening and empathy, and the meaning of community and stewardship. But what I found truly special was talking about their healing superpowers.
Yes. I said superpowers.
Let me explain.
Two things that servant leaders are fully aware of are this. One- Servant leaders are leaders who truly care for those who are in their charge, and two- there are no perfect people.
In our roles as leaders, we sometimes either inherit or hire individuals that come into our organizations who come with a history, and sometimes even a label, that follows them. They may have worked in a past environment where their Manager may not have been someone who valued them. They may not have given their whole self to their past position. They may have been in a situation that didn't match their skill set or worked with people who didn't appreciate them, and they in turn may not have appreciated them back.
Traditional leadership philosiphy would suggest that a leader who has taken on this new individual go through their file and put appropriate perameters and expectations around. The goal here would be to ensure you don't have any issues with them in the beginning, and that they meet your expectations of them, as well as their role. You would do this through an "expectations discussion" - a firm warning to them that you are aware of their past behaviour, and those actions aren't going to be acceptable on their new team and under your leadership.
So let me ask you- how is that ANY different than the scenario that I just painted in the above paragraph about the foster child? Why do we empathize with one and not the other?
The truth is that we have the power and ability to heal both situations in the exact same way.
Our ability to heal as servant leaders is a superpower.
Through servant leadership principles like listening and empathy, we can understand what our people have been through and where they've come from. We can acknowledge their past and help them come to terms with it. And we can give them a fresh start.
A start that brings forward new, consistent and intentional behaviours from their leaders that demonstrate that they have meaning and value to us- that they matter. We can write a new chapter, one that doesn't rely on history as a predictor of future success, but rather one that gives our people the potential for a clean slate- that fresh start that they were looking for in the first place. Over time, we can show them that we care about them - enough to even hold them accountable when they aren't maximizing their full potential. But we do this not for the betterment of "the team" or "the organization", but rather for themselves.
The servant leader's superpower in all of this is that we can truly heal people. We can give them a chance to replace behaviours and memories of past situations with positive ones. Through kindness and compassion, we can literally transform the way that people value themselves, and give them the opportunity to realize their full potential in a safe, supportive environment.
When I listened to the people around the table last weekend with the SFFA Board, I heard stories of how putting this gentle healing and teaching in place created amazing outcomes for foster children. Around that table was over 100 years of foster care experience, with countless numbers of children being cared for. And the most fulfilling part of their roles as foster parents was creating an environment for their foster children to heal and grow.
How cool is that?!