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?