“We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.”
::William Arthur Ward::

So tell me, where do you look for leadership in our profession?
Who do you turn to when looking for direction at work?
Well, there are almost as many models of leadership as there are motivations for wanting to be a leader.
But I am going to put it to you…that you are looking way too far over there.

Origins of the servant-leader:

The term Servant Leader was first coined by Robert K Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader”.

The essay was written shortly after Greenleaf read a novel by Herman Hesse, “Journey to the East”, in which a group of travelling companions out on a spiritual quest, included a servant who attended to their needs and carefully organised all the necessities of their journey.
At one point in the story, the servant left the group. Once this occurred…..the group quickly fell apart.

This story impressed Greenleaf, who recognised that the servant was actually modelling the most important leadership within the group.
But not the usual form of leadership.

The practice of Servant-Leadership has been documented as far back as the 4th century BC, when an ancient Indian Hindu treatise on statecraft that was written by the Prime Minister of the Maurya Empire advised that kings should use all the resources of the state to meet the needs of their subjects, not the needs of the king.

Sometime around 500 BC in China, Lao-Tzu wrote:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’

And Jesus demonstrated the way in which his own leadership was oriented by washing the feet of his disciples (John 13: 12-15).

It’s not top down, it’s not botttom up, it’s something else:

Unlike the top down autocratic, hierarchical leadership that repeatedly lifts us and drops us, as the tidal insecurities of power and authority ripple down form above…servant leadership emphasises collaboration, community, and inclusion in decision making. It attempts to promote trust, empathy and an ethical use of any leadership power.
Service here, must not be confused with servitude. The nurse servant-leader is no handmaiden. They work with strength from a place of integrity, advocacy and assertiveness.
To look for this place invites us to reflect on what is really important in both our profession and in our personal lives.
What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? Is it better to turn them inwards, or to open them outwards?

“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 an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
::Robert Greenleaf::

10 Characteristics of Servant Leaders:

According to Greenleaf, the 10 Characteristics of Servant Leaders are: Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualisation, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the growth of others, and Building community.

Listening. Developing the skill of deep listening, in which you make a space with all your senses that can be filled by the true message held by the other.
Listening and clarifying that the message, both spoken and unspoken that has been sent is the same as the message you have received.
Listening also involves listening to your own voice. Reflective practice is one such way of ‘listening’ to your own nursing actions and experiences within the context of professional standards, as well as the context of your own guiding principles.
To listen to your own questions, drop the pre-conceived and the pre-known and replace them with an open curiosity.

Empathy. Skilfully replacing your own self with that of another in order to experience their point of view.
John C. Maxwell said: “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Healing. Our core business, no?
After years of nursing, I came to the point where I used to feel mentally drained and fatigued by the end of each shift.
I felt as if I was giving, giving, giving…until the tank was empty. I saw it around me too.
And then when the tank was finally empty, and even the fumes were exhausted, I noticed that everything just kept on going anyway.
It dawned on me that true healing is actually not giving at all, but reflecting back each persons inherent ability to heal themselves….. and allowing them to reflect back our own healing.

Have a think about that.

Greenleaf wrote: “there is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led, is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.”

Awareness Situational awareness and self-awareness.
A sort of peripheral vision as to what is going on around us followed by the ability to overcome external inertia and to do the best thing at the best time in the best way.

Persuasion. Persuasion rather than coercion.
Sometimes the situation calls for unified movement to achieve a goal. No matter if it be a patients care plan, a new policy, or a strategy to get a difficult patient to change their lifestyle, servant-leader nurses seek to convince others rather than to force them. They stand with presence, but they stand on nothing solid, and are open to the possibility of changing their own position when persuaded by another.

Conceptualisation. Being able to step back and explore the vertical aspects of what we do. To take a look at the big picture.
Nursing is traditionally an operational, task oriented activity. Anyone can do a task, but to really understand why they are doing it and how it reacts and responds within the continuum of our practice is to lift the science to an art.

Foresight. An important trait for nurses. The ability to anticipate the next correct step. Tied closely to conceptualization, foresight is reflective practice sent forward to find the path.

Stewardship. Originally, the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall, stewardship is the careful and responsible nurturing of our profession, our colleagues and ourselves, encouraging direction and development.
Stewardship also requires us to recognize the value of that we have been given to hold, and to pass on an appreciation of that value.

Commitment to the growth of others.
Recognising another’s strengths and talents and giving them ground to let those strengths flourish.
Martin Luther King once said: “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Building community: Something to work on. As nurses we seem to be far too busy to build any meaningful community.

Don’t do what I say…just be what you be.

It is difficult to teach someone how to be a servant-leader, it is an essence not easily quantified (but almost always quickly recognised).
In fact, it is far easier to infect them with it than to feed them with it.

By working to actually manifest the qualities of a servant-leader nurse, those around who are ‘ready’ will feel some congruence with their own beliefs and aspirations, and may open to the strengths of their own service.

There are so many nurses out there who gradually become asphyxiated to the power and importance of the work they do each day.
Constant repetition within the workloads and stresses that press down on us spare little time for building any community of support. Instead, nurses adopt the belief that to be successful leaders, they must soon leave the bed-side.

Servant leadership is not a position to be bestowed or awarded by your peers, it cannot even be earned, but rather it is a quality of recognition, returned to you as a gift from those you serve.
Becoming a nurse as servant-leader, requires a long term transformational approach to your work, and indeed your life.
It is something you need to be not something you need to do.

Today our profession finds itself venturing into some pretty difficult terrain. Whilst I am far from clear on the destination, I have no doubt it will be an epic quest.
A quest in which we need our servants now, more than ever before.

“The purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and to share. When you come to look back on all that you have done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you have brought into other people’s lives than you will from the times that you outdid and defeated them.”
::Rabbi Harold Kushner::

4 Responses to “nurse as servant-leader.”

  1. Thanks so much for your post…it has helped so much…

  2. Thanks Ian for looking at servant-leader. There is much that resonates with me in what you have written and in what you make reference to.

  3. Ian

    As a mature age nursing student this is the best bit of advice/reflection I have come across, it is healing for me.

    I had been a faciltator or servant/leader in my previous career, at times it tired me out. I’ve been at the stage in my studies and prac where I have been unable to find who I am in nursing, I felt lost and like I was failing to take up ‘leadership’ and I didnt know why, but what you wrote reminded me of who I am and that it is OK to be a servant-leader.

    Your reflection enabled me to see I dont have to do it all (which worried me), I am of value as a servant/leader, there are different types of leaders, I see I have always needed upfront leaders on my journey. The quote from Lao-Tzu was interesting as in my younger years I found myself under a few upfront leaders who forged ahead but lacked the balance of awareness, foresight etc, some were self seeking, didnt last and left a mess, I need to examine this more as it made me wary of the responsibility of very visible leadership.

    Most importantly, you identified how not to run on empty, it enables me to give in a way that also sustains me.

    So thanks! You have provided me with some leadership and direction!

  4. You have done an excellent job quantifying subjective concepts in this post. Leadership is about dialog and compassion, finding the personal, community, and public ethic within the multitude of decisions we make everyday. It starts with self honesty and self compassion. When we are truthful about our own foibles it becomes easier to accept them in others and develop a give and take approach, making life, nursing,and relationships more fulfilling and happy.

    When more of us understand, we will move our profession forward by leaps and bounds. I feel hopeful reading your post. Thanks.

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