Servant Leadership

NOVEMBER 01, 2006
James C. McAllister III, MS, FASHP: Pharmacy Times Editor, Health-Systems Pharmacy Section

As part of a course on practice management and leadership taught to professional students, the faculty and I have suggested that students aspire to become servant leaders. At first glance, the term appears to be an oxymoron. Let me share with you a description of a servant leader by Robert Greenleaf, the man who coined the phrase, taken from his book entitled Servant As Leader:

"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. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established. 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."

From my point of view, servant leadership is slowly replacing the traditional hierarchical leadership philosophies. Servant leadership promotes caring, selflessness, collaboration, mutual trust with followers, and a focus on those the leaders represent as the priority of the unit or organization. In professional pharmacy practice, pharmacists rebel at the use of autocratic management for good reason. We are fundamentally bright, are committed to our patients, make professional daily judgments that can have profound impacts on patients and entire organizations, and assume responsibility given to us by public trust. In other words, pharmacists do not need anyone to tell them what to do. They need experienced colleagues as leaders who are enablers, who overcome obstacles for the collective good, who support, encourage, and mentor, and who empower them to achieve their individual performance expectations and goals as well as those of the organization.

Among the noblest facets of servant leadership is the ethical use of authority and empowerment. Expectations of stockholders, stakeholders, and other leaders in an organization and personal risk and aspirations can affect the servant leader, especially if he or she does not hold a formal leadership position. Finally, the servant leadership philosophy is not limited to an individual, but can (and should) be espoused by entire organizations.

I encourage you to learn more about servant leadership and apply its basic principles to your own leadership opportunities. I would also suggest that we expect that organizations to which we belong adopt servant leadership as their corporate philosophy. While I accept that this last challenge may be difficult in all hospitals, perhaps we could start with professional organizations. Do your local, state, and national organizations empower their memberships and put the priorities of their individual members before themselves? Do they listen, care about their members, establish priorities collaboratively, and hold themselves accountable to the membership? Do they use their resources and influence ethically and for the greater good? Do the leaders in your hospitals and in your departments do the same? What do you think?

Mr. McAllister is director of pharmacy at University of North Carolina (UNC) Hospitals and Clinics and associate dean for clinical affairs at UNC School of Pharmacy, Chapel Hill.