Seeds of Change Chapter 13: Promote horizontal learning processes

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From Vincentian Family News Blog's introduction to the Systemic Change: Seeds of Change series: Pope John Paul II encouraged people to analyze the situation of the poor carefully, to identify the structural roots of poverty, and to formulate concrete solutions.This week, we begin a 20-week series, offered by the members of the Commission for Promoting Systemic Change, about strategies that are useful, often even essential, for bringing about such change.

Adopting as its starting point a group of projects in which systemic change has actually taken place, the Commission analyzed stories of leaders of successful projects. From these stories, the Commission sought to identify the strategies that helped produce lasting change.It soon became clear that many of the strategies that led to structural changes and transformed the circumstances of individuals and communities flowed from the Gospels and from our Vincentian tradition.

Systemic Change Strategy 13: Promote learning processes in which the members of the group, especially the poor themselves, speak with one another about their successes and failures, share their insights and talents, and work toward forming effective multiplying agents and visionary leaders in the local community, servant-leaders inspired by St. Vincent de Paul.

by Robert Maloney, CM

Robert Maloney, CM

Forming people for leadership roles is fundamental for bringing about long-lasting change. But experience teaches that a vertical style of leadership is rarely effective in systemic change projects. Servant leaders are needed, men and women who listen, help the group to formulate projects, involve it in implementing them, and engage it in evaluating and re-structuring them.

In 1970, in an essay entitled “The Servant as Leader,” Robert Greenleaf developed and popularized the concept of servant leadership for various institutions, including churches and businesses. His followers formulated ten principles for servant leadership:

1. Listening

2. Empathy

3. Healing

4. Awareness

5. Persuasion

6. Conceptualization

7. Foresight

8. Stewardship

9. Commitment to the Growth of People

10. Building Community

An explanation of these ten principles can be found on many websites, including:


Leadership Initiative Web Site

For a specifically Vincentian perspective, see:

For a specifically Vincentian perspective, see

Servant Leadership in the Manner of St. Vincent de Paul, by J. Patrick Murphy, C.M., Ph.D.

Of course, the concept of “servant leadership” jumps off the pages of the New Testament. It can also be found in many other religious traditions. Chanakya, a popular strategic thinker in ancient India, wrote about servant leadership in his 4th-century book Arthashastra. He stated clearly that “the leader shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his followers”.

In a sense, servant leaders assume the role of followers, listening to others and empowering them to reach their goals. They realize that, when they themselves listen well, their followers accomplish more.

This strategy is illustrated in the AIC-Madagascar story:

“Soon, the first volunteers became multiplying agents, training others to be active in working toward social change even in the poorest communities of this budding network. To facilitate their work, we initiated a project in which we donated computers to one of the AIC groups and gave the members, with the help of experts, the training they needed to use them. This was an important step toward empowerment, improving their self-esteem and confidence.

“In Manakara, we began to see clearly what the future of a larger national association might be. There was already a recognized leader: a young woman, intelligent and strong, with a good formation and deep faith. She had a vision about what participative teamwork meant. Her leadership, based on her formation and her ideals, was a good springboard for promoting systemic change.”

From his experience in the Philippines, Fr. Norberto Carcellar, CM notes that inter-community meetings in which disadvantaged groups participate pave the way toward rethinking a project and increase its efficiency. Such meetings also provide communities with an opportunity to change their way of thinking, “so that the poor are not seen as problems, but as part of the solution.”

Searching for the means to emerge from poverty is often a risky enterprise. Servant leadership encourages the community to take the risks that are needed.