Servant leadership: A model well-suited for healthcare

Jack Rudnick, Jr.

By John (Jack) Rudnick, Jr.

One of the philosophies that defies a common understanding of leadership is a model known as servant leadership. The paradox is that this model is characterized, inherently, by the desire to serve others through seeking the well-being of followers and providing them with the necessary support to achieve goals. Servant leadership is a mindset that is counter-intuitive to the common understanding that leadership requires the pursuit of power, authority or self-promotion to advance an agenda. As a result, many situations and work environments find that this prescriptive style embodies the core values targeted by healthcare entities.

Leadership Styles

In the leadership world where a continuum of models that include authoritarian, transactional and transformational styles, servant leadership takes its place as an important consideration for situational decision-making throughout all aspects of broad disciplines. Many immediately link servant leadership to faith bases as this philosophy characterizes the model embraced by Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and St Mother Teresa.

Leadership self-awareness and emotional intelligence (popularized by George and Goleman respectively) are fundamentals taught in leadership and management classes throughout the world. As core values define healthcare entities, so too does the mindset and elements of servant leadership in a profession rooted in caring and empathetic values.

Each leader must dig deep using objective tools such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Profile, DISC, and Gallup’s Strength Finders to characterize the personal self. When coupled with the academic works of leadership experts and management theorists a personal philosophy of leadership is established that define our personal self and approach to this chosen life-path.

Model Proposed

In 1977, Robert Greenleaf coined the term in his essay “Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.” The following excerpt from this essay offers a general description of this construct for application in both secular and faith-based organizations:

The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage and unusual power drive to acquire material professions…The leader first and the seventy-first are two extreme types.

Spiritual and Self Transcendence

Abraham Maslow said, “Healthcare is a vocation, a calling, and a profession that draws people who seek to become self- actualized in the management hierarchy defined and popularized by an atheist.”

A little-known fact is that self-actualization is not the final rung of his globally accepted pyramid for defining the complete self. Spiritual or self-transcendence are actually used to characterize his realization late in life that there is more to self-fulfillment, a higher purpose defines an ability to become whole and complete. This would be consistent with the calling felt by those who seek out the helping healthcare profession as a chosen career.

Situation and Culture Sensitive

Servant leadership has its place among cultures along the continuum of choices for leaders. A situational template is prudent to frame the healthcare context. Servant leadership may not always be a practical model to embrace. Authoritarian model characteristics must be practically applied in operating and procedure rooms where the physician is the captain of the ship by authority and must command how processes unfold.

Similarly, guidance must be provided for task-completion in business operations— some transactional styles (characterized by quid pro quo/tradeoff expectations) or transformational styles (participative with others’ needs first but falling short of the Servant philosophy).

The reality is that with razor-thin profit margins in an environment of free-fall change and diminished return on investment (ROI), there is often not the luxury of mistake-making or employee associates finding their true selves in day -to-day experiences.

Rather, servant leadership can be viewed as a marathon in the race of life –crafted, developed and molded through an individual’s collective education, background and experiences.

Healthcare is well suited to servant leadership. The alignment between the values fostered in healthcare and the principles of servant leadership combine to achieve compatibility of this model. Caring for others is among the ethical and professional values and is a basic tenet of servant leadership. It is possible to embrace and foster the values proposed in this philosophy, as all healthcare entities convey in their mission. One can realistically find a balance and embrace the core values that characterize this model by applying daily to an affected area as prescribed.

10 characteristics of a servant leader 

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of the people
  10. Building a community

John (Jack) Rudnick, Jr., is the Chief Operating Officer at TriState Gastroenterology Associates in Crestview Hills, Kentucky.