Dan Stamm

St. Joseph’s University Teaches Pope Francis’ Servant Leadership Model to Wawa, Other Companies

A Philadelphia university is teaching a leadership philosophy embraced by Pope Francis not only to students but to businesses including Philly-favorite Wawa.

We can see servant leadership being part of what (Pope Francis" does every day," said Saint Joseph's University associate professor of management Dr. Ronald Dufresne. "He realizes that his job is to care for others.

"The essence of servant leadership is, by definition, giving, first and foremost. I think that most of us feel good when we do that anyway... but that's an aside because sometimes serving costs, sometimes it hurts us."

Dufresne has taken his own military training to develop a servant leadership program at the Jesuit university on City Avenue.

"I first saw the concept of servant leadership, although it wasn't that name, as an Army officer. We were taught at West Point, first and foremost, care for the well-being of our soldiers... there was always a competition to eat last to make sure that everyone else has had their full. That's just the way you grow up in the Army is to always, first and foremost, care for others."

The idea of servant leadership is to think of how you can make someone else's life better and in turn make your own life better.

Dufresne said his experience, and more importantly struggles, as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army then in the corporate world helped shape him as a servant leader.

"I used to think that leadership was an act of getting someone to do something and then the more you work with people you realize that that's actually impossible," said Dufresne. "The beauty of servant leadership is that it reframes the role of a leader instead of getting someone to do something toward, 'how can I better make your life more fulfilling? How can I help you grow? How can I serve your needs?' And, to me, that's just much more authentic and much more meaningful to interact as a leader."

Dufresne says servant leadership, though only coined as such in the past 40 years or so, has been around for a very long time.

"That's what I love about this concept of servant leadership, is that it's really be around for millennia: the idea that we have the responsibility to be stewards, to be caretakers," said Dufresne. "The concept has been around for as long as people have been around and I think that in recent history -- especially in American industry -- we've lost sight of that."

Dufresne says servant leadership is deeply rooted in Jesuit -- a male Roman Catholic order that Francis comes from -- teachings and includes learning not only by students but by leaders.

"Servant leadership is something that is at the core of what the Jesuits are all about, they're all about serving the poor, serving the needs of others, serving social justice," said Dufresne. "This has been the Jesuit way of proceeding for as long as they've been in existence, for centuries, and now there's a great title for it."

Dufresne said that some bold business leaders wanting to "stand up for what is right" has helped bring the servant leadership management style into more and more workplaces.

Some of those companies that have sought management training at St. Joe's include international chocolate giant Ferrero Rocher, South Jersey's Kennedy Health System and Philly-favorite Wawa.

"Private ownership and shared ownership are key parts of the moral compass that keeps Wawa on course," wrote Wawa vice chairman Howard Stoeckel in The Wawa Way. "The third part of this compass is something called servant leadership."

"Wawa is a great example of a company that has taken servant leadership seriously from its foundation," said Dufresne. "The idea is to take something that is already part of their culture... to teach them fundamental approaches to management that is informed by servant leadership."

Some of those ideas include giving better feedback to employees and learning what employees need to grow.

Stoeckel writes that most companies are managed from the top down and that key executive make most major decisions.

"Wawa is quite different in this regard," he says. "We exist to serve our friends, neighbors and communities, and to serve our 21,000-plus associates so they can serve our customers. Rather than a top-down organization, Wawa is a bottom-up organization. We empower our associates to do the wonderful things that make this company great. This, in a nutshell, is the concept of servant leadership -- one in which the executives are called to serve, support, and nurture the associates. It inverts the traditional corporate hierarchy, placing the leaders at the bottom of the organizational chart and putting the associates at the top."

“For us, the training was important because we wanted to have one leadership approach,” Dorothy Swartz, Wawa’s senior director of talent management and development, told the Haub School.

"It's OK as a leader to not be in the spotlight, to not be seeking glory," said Dufresne, who hopes to teach that lesson to his own son.

"None of us has all the answers," said Dufresne. "None of us knows exactly what we should be doing every time a decision comes our way. Instead, we do what we feel is best and we have to struggle and grow and learn."

That struggle is shared by Dean Dr. Joseph DiAngelo, who learned to be a servant leader after taking the reins of St. Joe's Erivan K. Haub School of Business nearly three decades ago at a time when he was younger than most of the educators he would lead.

"You can't be a leader if no one is following," said DiAngelo.

DiAngelo helped bring the servant leadership model to St. Joe's business school after learning some of its philosophies in the Army and also while coaching sports.

"You have to let the people know that you care about them and the result that you're trying to get," said DiAngelo.

"Servant leadership is blind to direction. We can serve our peers and their growth as leaders, we can serve up... the idea that I can help my boss do a better job," said Dufresne.

So how does one start on the road to being a servant leader? Dufresne offers a question in response.

"How can I help someone today?"

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