APU Careers Careers & Learning Original

Servant Leadership and Guiding Teams to Business Success

By Meagan Wilson, MHA
Program Director, School of Health Sciences, American Public University

I used to think I was an extrovert. As my best friend described me to her husband prior to him meeting me, “She can talk to a tree; it’ll be fine, don’t worry.” I came from a big family and a small town. “Just us” meant a crowd of 20-plus people. So to be heard, you had to be loud, interesting and funny.

Start a healthcare administration degree at American Public University.

Fast-forward several years, and I was at corporate training for a company and doing a Myers-Briggs personality test. As a result, I learned something about myself. I was an introvert, albeit a loud one. I struggled with this concept as I moved into leadership roles, particularly in organizations that wanted non-stop interaction with little time for recuperation.

Once in the middle of the night, which is when I always make important decisions, I awoke determined to return to college for my Ph.D. By the time my husband awoke the next morning, I had already enrolled. After years of studying and working, health administration was certainly my forte and passion.

I found myself with some leeway when choosing my doctorate classes. The one path I had not fully explored was public health policy. Therefore, to become more fully educated, I decided that should be my focus.

As it turns out, I didn’t enjoy it. I found myself gravitating toward leadership classes, so I fulfilled the rest of my pre-dissertation requirements with as many leadership classes as I could. That move would prove to be valuable to me as a professional and a person.

Leaders and Managers Are Different

Leaders are not the same as managers. Managers are task-oriented; they check things off a list. Leaders help others to see the larger vision and work together to accomplish it. Like anything, however, servant leadership requires instruction and practice.

I realized I believed strongly in the “servant leadership” theory. Why did this resonate so strongly with me? If anything, it was actually making my professional life more difficult. I was working in corporate healthcare and my manager was not a fan of this theory, though she never would have admitted it. We often deadlocked over topics.

One day, she informed me that if there was anything I did well, it was speak the language of “mom.” For reference, this was not actually a compliment. She did not approve of the way I managed/led or my belief that good leadership was a lot like parenting.

However, my manager wanted me to take on an employee who needed a great deal of retraining and encouragement. She knew that task would resonate with me.

Servant Leadership Is Building Up the People Around You and Putting Their Needs First

Servant leadership is the decision to build up those around you and to put others’ needs before your own, so that they all align toward the greater vision. It is the conscious choice to build others’ skills and not feel threatened by your own skill set. Servant leadership is also the ability to step back when others achieve something and know that their accomplishment is also your accomplishment.

That’s when it hit me why I believed so strongly in servant leadership. It was due to my grandmother. My “Mommom” was a nurse of 42 years. She stood four foot ten and three-quarters (that three-quarters of an inch was important, it made her legally able to drive). Her life was not easy, but I remember her making it look easy.

I remember as a little girl watching her one day packing a bag full of necessities: clothes, snacks and toiletries. The memory of the exact items is foggy, but the impact is not.

I asked her why she was packing the bag and who it was for. She explained that it was for one of her patients. A pregnant woman had come to gain custody of her husband’s child and had sold everything they owned to buy an RV.

The wife then went into early labor. In the midst of this situation, their RV caught fire and they lost everything. As a child, I couldn’t convey in words what I learned that day, and honestly decades later, I still can’t. I know what I walked away thinking though, and I decided to model my behavior accordingly.

Servant Leaders Like My Grandmother Have a True Impact on Others’ Lives

When my Mommom retired, physicians flew back home from vacation so as not to miss her party. About a decade ago, I went to work at the same hospital where she had spent her entire career.

People would stop me in the halls and ask if I was her granddaughter. Then they would tell me stories of how she had touched their lives and countless others.

My grandmother passed away a few years later after a long and excruciating battle with scleroderma. During that time, she displayed her last acts of servant leadership.

Dying from dehydration and malnutrition, she gathered us together because she wanted to divide her extensive jewelry collection among her granddaughters and daughters-in-law. She also wanted to talk with us all one last time, and give us her last words of wisdom.

My grandmother had birthstone jewelry for each granddaughter, which we knew she had made for us. We circled the tables and picked up our jewelry. Sharing stories, laughing and reminiscing was my grandmother’s plan all along.

Her last great act in servant leadership was to remind us of the united vision — the importance of love and family. One by one, youngest granddaughter to oldest (me), we went into the room for our last, brief conversations.

At this point she was on home hospice and had been without nutrition or hydration for a week. She wanted to tell each of us that she loved us and to stay strong. To have so many people still so emotionally dependent upon her must have been exhausting.

How she did it, I don’t know. Or maybe I do because that’s what great leaders do; they summon everything they have to bring out the united vision in the group. You see, great leaders make sure their vision can live on after them.

The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Changed Leaders and How We Look at Them

Having a vision that lives on brings me to our current situation, the pandemic. Social distancing has forced us all to evaluate ourselves, a task we largely avoid during normal times. The COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus has forced us all to become leaders in some form.

While the world slows down, why not take this opportunity to consider who might be watching you? Who considers you their leader? After all, you never know; someone might one day write how you were their leadership muse.

More information about leadership is available in Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

About the Author

Meagan Wilson is the Program Director of Healthcare Administration for American Public University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in health administration with an emphasis on long term care and a master’s degree in health administration. Currently pursuing her Ph.D. in health services, her dissertation focuses on the “Relationship between Nephrologist Characteristics and the Use of Home Dialysis.”

Prior to her work in academia, Meagan spent a majority of her career in the field of dialysis, having worked as a Certified Clinical Hemodialysis Technician (CCHT) and a patient educator. She was also part of a nationwide program to provide education to patients prior to starting dialysis. Additionally, Meagan has worked as a consulting associate in strategic planning and quality assurance for Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.

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