Thursday, April 07, 2011


Context:  I shared the following remarks on "leadership" at the 2010 Healthcare Heroes Awards sponsored by the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence in Dallas, Texas at Los Colinas Country Club on the evening of  November 11, 2010.

Thanks for the invitation: your mission is so very important, your work most noteworthy; and it’s an honor for me to be with you this evening!

When invited to be with you tonight, I was asked to speak about “Servant Leadership.”  Immediately, I thought of Robert Greenleaf’s groundbreaking work on the subject.  I even visited the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership website and noted that just recently the center hosted a conference on servant leadership for healthcare professionals!

I suppose these times cause us to stop and reflect on the sort of leadership we need today to be successful.   To be sure, the nature of our challenges today, with all of their complexity, interlocking realities and required tradeoffs/compromises, call for a different approach on the part of leaders. Our apparent loss of simple civility in our political and policy discourses discourages us all, I expect.

Just a note here: a “loss of civility” in political discourse is really not a new phenomenon on the American political landscape.  Jefferson and John Adams engaged in it in 1800--Jefferson’s faith was berated and questioned.  Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams engaged in it in 1828.  Be that as it may, our current battles and loss of civility call for a new sort of leader.

Individual self-interest can no longer carry the day; as a matter of fact, pursuing self-interest alone could be our undoing as a people. . .today demands sacrifice and servant hearts.

Franklin Roosevelt in his second Inaugural Address spoke to this notion of unbridled self-interest—certainly not a mainstay of servant leadership:

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. . . .This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.”

To linger for a moment with the Presidential, I think of a powerful few lines from President Lincoln’s annual message to Congress—12/1/1862:

“. . . .the dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

So, what is this notion of “Servant Leadership”? How does one know if he or she is in fact such a leader of others?

You are a “servant leader if. . .

1. . . .you listen as much or more than you speak--this requires restraint, respect and reverence--to listen first is to build trust and team and respect.

This is a hard discipline, but one we must learn if we are to lead effectively in these challenging days--to be open with concerned empathy to your team, your staff, your associates is the first step on the journey of servant leadership—it is an art

2. . . .you are as comfortable taking directions as you are in giving them--this calls for inner strength, assurance and self-confidence, this calls for trust and connection, the things that make leaders great.

3. . . .you are as concerned for others and their concerns as you are for yourself and your agenda.

4. . . .you recognize the benefit of cooperation over against radical, unbridled individualism—a value promoted ad nauseum in our culture.

5. . . .you work hard to promote others and their interests in the world you share with them.

6. . . .you become more and more selfless in work, focus, mission and style.

7. . . .you accentuate “team” over self. . .recognizing the importance of “ownership”

8. . . .you recognize often overlooked sources of capital and power.

9. . . .you open yourself to engagement; avoid isolation; embrace creativity from unexpected sources and enjoy a measure of chaos!

Dr. King said, “I subject myself to endless self-analysis. I question and soul-search constantly into myself to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I am guiding my people in the right direction.”

10. . . .you develop clear, bold plans and then execute with your team adjusting as you go!

“Leadership is leaders acting—as well as caring, inspiring and persuading others to act—for certain shared goals that represent the values—the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations—of themselves and the people they represent. And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders care about, visualize, and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivation.” James MacGregor Burns, Leadership.

“First, leadership omits the use of coercive power. . . . Second, leaders have a bias for action and a sense of urgency that are centered around shared goals. And third, leaders act with respect for the values of the people they represent—which are in concert with their own personal convictions. True leadership, then, is very different from many theories of modern management that are centered around a command and control hierarchy.” Donald T. Phillips, Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership

I suppose the ultimate image of servant leadership for Christian folk would be the scene where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples: an act of necessity, an act of humility, and act of love that models the servant’s “whatever is necessary” heart.

I’ll close with a personal story:

My father-in-law, Clyde Erwin was part of what Tom Brokaw has taught us to call the “greatest generation”
He crossed Normandy beach on the 5th or 6th day after D-Day.  He and his combat group fought their way into the middle of the Battle of the Bulge—most of his compatriots were lost in the fighting; he was wounded in the process—blown off of a Jeep.  He told me that on Christmas morning 1944, he awoke under a foot or so of snow in the midst of the battle of his life and of the war.  He won the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.  He never spoke expansively of his exploits or his experience.  He came through tough, tough times.

Before he died, I wrote him a letter thanking him for his leadership, heroism and sacrifice. . .he was a servant leader for sure. In asking me to think of these principles, you’ve reminded me of him and I’m most grateful. 

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