Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Becca Stevens: Leadership & The Magdalene Women

In 2008, police in Nashville charged more than 1300 women with prostitution. Some of the lucky ones have found a way out of destitution and addiction through a Nashville-based program called The Magdalene Project.

Envisioned and founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, Episcopal priest and Vanderbilt Chaplain, The Magdalene Project mobilizes people and resources to provide hope, help, and homes for prostitutes (Heifitz, 1988). Grounded in love, Stevens positively models Greenleaf’s “servant leadership” (1977) as she makes sure the greatest of needs of her followers are addressed first— to get them off the street and to safety. Steven’s demonstrates Selznick’s (1975) practical idea that leadership is a “kind of work done to meet the needs of a social situation.”

Becca’s goal is to help this sub-culture of women and to change greater cultural beliefs that females can be bought and sold. With Magdalene, women get into a safe, compassionate and disciplined community. Becca’s attempt to change the culture from one of degradation to one of valuing women exhibits the cultural change aspect of leadership described by Schein (1985). By turning values into reality, Stevens exemplifies visionary leadership (Sashkin 1989; Choi, 2006). We see transformational leadership as she helps elevate followers with “rising up through levels of morality” to a better life (Bass and Avolio, 1994; Burns, 1978).

Becca’s servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977) continued when she saw that women needed more than just a safe place to live. Starting Thistle Farms in 2001 as a non-profit off-shoot, the women now work and learn responsibility and commitment. The business involves their hand-crafting and home-selling of holistic bath and body products—providing women with much-needed and appreciated job skills and a huge dose of self-esteem. This way, Stevens provides women a platform for moral values and creative work, as Barnard (1938) and Selznick (1975) described in their leadership writings. Product sales funnel back into the program and help keep it going. We see McGregor’s Theory Y notion (1960) here that people will be self-directed about achieving organizational objectives as long as they are committed. Magdalene women are committed to their healing and growth by doing a good job while on the job.

Becca’s actions are grounded in her inner calling that “love is the most powerful force for change in the world” (www.thistlefarms.org). With over nine additional leadership theorists/authors cited, it is Becca’s servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977) that stands out for me. Her actions have led more than 200 women to a better life--women who formerly had little to no hope. Estimates by the United Way (personal communication, 2009) estimate that between 70-80% of women graduate and never return to a life street walking.

If these figures were not available, is there any question of Becca’s leadership actions around a difficult social issue? Do you see other leadership theories working in the life of Reverend Becca Stevens? If so, do you think any of them overshadow her display of servant leadership?


  1. Sarah, thank you for your post. I really enjoyed learning about The Magdalene Project because it encompasses such a difficult social issue. You raised some great questions in your analysis of Becca Stevens as a leader, and I wanted to further argue her leadership actions as a reflection of servant leadership.

    You asked if there would be any question of Becca's leadership actions around a difficult social issue if there weren't any figures available, and my personal response would be no. We have discussed the debate of whether or not servant leadership can be measured in previous class discussions, and I think, in Becca's case, her servant leadership is evidenced in her ability to mobilize others to join her cause and offer women hope so that they never have to street walk again. I think her vision in founding the organization in 1997 and the fact that it continues to exist today is a sign of Becca's success as a leader. The facts and figures presented offer concrete affirmation of successful progress towards goals, but I believe her classification as a servant leader can be attributed to Greenleaf's whole idea of being a servant first and then a leader. It seems as though Becca founded the organization with a vision in mind and became a leader as a result of its success.

    I would also go as far as to infer that Becca exercises a certain level of charisma in elevating followers because she is able to effectively help these women achieve a better life. It seems to me that Becca exercises bits and pieces of other leadership theories that ultimately come together to strengthen her abilities as a servant leader.

  2. Alison, I agree with your comments whole-heartedly. Even if there were no metrics assessing her Project, I still think Becca would be a servant first because of her underpinnings of love and a leader second as a result of the need to do something about her inner calling.

    Connected to servant leadership is Senge's notion (1990) that leadership is stewardship. I see Becca operating in this way by daily stewardship of the people she leads, the women, and stewardship toward the larger purpose of impacting dealing with this social problem.

    Helping the women learn how to to be functional and to live and work in society also represent Becca's leadership as teacher (Tead, 1935; Selznick, 1975). Then there is this whole notion of effective followership (Kelly, 1988). Becca can't do anything or show leadership unless these women want to make a change in their lives.

    Would class members want to experience the women of Magdalene? If there is enough interest from our class, I will host a "home show" (this is one way they tell their stories and sell products) during our break. I offered to volunteer when I was working on this blog and was told that hosting an event would be the best thing I could do to support the cause. Please, all, let me know your interest level. Fair warning--they are compelling and effective sales people!

  3. Thanks for this post Sarah! I agree with you that Becca's leadership is being displayed as a type of servant leadership. Going a little bit more off of what Alison said though, I do think she displays a significant amount of charismatic leadership. Using the three components of Choi's definition of a charismatic leader, Becca is empowering these women by giving them jobs, showing empathy towards them and their situation, and envisioning a future for these women that doesn't involve being sold and bought. I would also assume that Becca is able to communicate these three components well because she has shown her ability to convey the benefits of the program shown by how long the program has carried on and how successful it has been. This is going off of what Hackman says that "leadership effectiveness depends on developing effective communication skills" (pg. 428). Given all the success of her program it sounds like she has been a successful communicator to these women as well.

  4. Erica, I agree with your assessments about Choi's 3 components of leadership--empathy, empowerment, and envisioning visible with Becca's charismatic style. She additionally shows these elements of leadership by taking 2 Magdalene women along on book signings (she has authored 4) to help. In fact, the fifth book being talked about is by the Magdalene women--Finding Your Way Home. Becca has 4 others that she has penned. Charismatic leadership through envisioning, empowerment and empathy is right on!

  5. Thank you, Sarah. I like your post. I agree with you and Alison. This post lets me think of Alison's and my psot few weeks ago. Brinker and Schmidheiny, founders of Susan G. Komen for the cure and Avina, mobolize people and give them hope toward goals and visions as Becca does. They all devote themselves to dealing with social problems and make people aware of existence of social puzzles. Plus, they influence their followers and give them a better life. They are definitely effective leaders of servant leadership. Serve first and lead.


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