Executive Health Administration

7 Lessons of Servant Leadership

[fa icon="calendar'] Jun 16, 2016 7:30:00 AM / by Anna Montgomery, MPA

“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.” Robert Greenleaf.

Refined by Greenleaf in the 1970’s servant leadership came to be a widely respected and utilized style that is defined by a leader’s:

  1. Care for others
  2. Ability to set an example
  3. Commitment to uphold ethics
  4. Drive to support others to success

Servant leadership is a popular style in nonprofit organizations and executive healthcare careers. The values of the servant leadership style hold lessons for any leadership style. The values associated with the servant leadership style include:


1. Prioritize Service  

For the leader with a servant style a drive to serve the most vulnerable populations is ingrained. Just like a triage nurse determines the patient that needs immediate attention, the leader allocates resources to those with greatest need first. 

2. Share Power

Servant leaders want others to step into leadership positions when appropriate. Decision making is shared, each person or group has a voice and the leader’s input is not privileged over others, reinforcing power differentials.

3. Demonstrate Care

In everything a leader seeks to achieve it’s important to show empathetic concern. Empathy is a large part of emotional intelligence. Demonstrating care is especially important and useful in healthcare as it impacts patient outcomes as well.

4. Develop Others

Leadership within this style is not about the individual’s power or influence but about the development of others. Success is defined by the empowerment of employees not the achievement of the leader. Empowered employees are more likely to take ownership of their activities and outcomes.



5. Eschew Wealth

Servant leaders are in their position to make a difference not accumulate money. Their career decisions are guided by the principles of service not markets.

6. Build Trust

Without trust, those that follow aren’t engaged. Trust is one of four primary things that followers need according to Tim Rath and Barry Conchie. In their book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, Rath and Conchie’s research indicates that trust is the foundation of leadership. Leaders that gain the trust of their employees enjoy better and more frequent communication and engagement.

7. Create a Safe Space

Psychological safety is a vital part of functional workplaces. Amy Edmonson, a Harvard professor and prominent researcher, coined the term psychological safety to indicate the belief that a team creates a space “safe for interpersonal risk taking”.

When psychological safety is available teams perform better, learning from admitted mistakes. Some of the worst outcomes come in environments where employees are afraid to share failures and take risks. Leaders end up in the dark over problems that can fester and grow.

In an article Edmonson gives an example of the importance of psychological safety in the workplace that is particularly relevant to healthcare:

A nurse might suspect that a patient is being given a dangerously high dosage of medication — but might not call the doctor to check, because the last time she spoke up, the doctor questioned her competence.

From this example it’s clear that not speaking up can have dire consequences for the patient. When I worked in risk management for a nationwide healthcare company this lack of communication could result in multimillion dollar lawsuits when patients suffered the consequences of inaction or a lack of communication.

Whether building trust or developing others by adhering to the values of servant leadership any leader can enhance their style, bringing the many benefits of these principles to bear.

 Download the 6 Healthcare Leadership Styles White Paper


Topics: Innovative Leadership

Anna Montgomery, MPA

Written by Anna Montgomery, MPA

Anna Montgomery earned her MPA at USC Price and is pursuing her EdD at USC Rossier.

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