Leadership is not about me

By Elaine Foster | 10/09/2017

It’s about how I motivate and help others.

Cowboy herding cattleThe author finds principles of servant leadership in a poetic tribute to the caring cattle stockman and explains why she aspires to be that kind of leader.

My leadership journey started years ago when I was a little girl. I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ dairy farm. My parents and I lived right down the road, so it was easy to go back and forth between home and farm. When I wasn’t in school or involved in activities, I was at the farm—picking fruit, hauling hay, feeding calves, helping Grandma in the garden, or hanging out with Grandpa while he did chores. I didn’t realize it at that time, but these experiences helped develop the leader in me.

Elaine FosterI had my first taste of leadership when I was elected secretary of my local 4-H club. I remember how excited I was. It was fun to be part of a dynamic organization and one of the “leaders.”

As time went on, I belonged to many organizations. It seemed that every time I became involved in an organization, I ended up in a leadership position. Early on, I realized I liked that role and, as a leader, could make a real difference.

Called to lead
It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral program, however, that I came to understand the importance of good leaders and what leadership really meant to me. While engaging in self-reflection, I came to believe that it wasn’t because of power or notoriety I pursued leadership positions, but because I had a “calling.” I read numerous books on leadership theory. I embraced Greenleaf’s servant leadership model and utilized principles of leadership from Covey, Kouzes, and Posner. But reading a book is not enough to be a great leader. After acquiring information, an effective leader uses it to develop and implement a leadership model that embodies what he or she personally stands for.

Who am I as a leader in nursing education? I have spent more than 30 years of my professional life in education. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. I love to work with students and be a mentor. The philosophical basis of my teaching is derived from the writings of Parker Palmer. To me, Palmer is the “servant leader” of the classroom.

When I first read Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, I thought, “Finally, here is someone who understands and describes how I feel about teaching.” Teaching comes from the heart, not just the head. We can learn basic teaching techniques and apply them in the classroom. We can study various theories on education and knowledge acquisition. But until we lead with our heart and soul, we are merely facilitators.

The concept of servant leadership guides me in my leadership development. In addition to influencing my decisions, it helps me convey to co-workers why I want to be a leader. True leaders want to serve and help people. I find tremendous satisfaction in seeing people grow because of good leadership. It is one of the most rewarding things I have experienced.

Principles of servant leadership
Years ago, H.W. Mumford wrote “A Tribute to the Stockman.” Although the poem describes how a good stockman serves the animals under his care before tending to his own needs, the principles it espouses communicate for me the foundational premise of servant leadership. Effective leaders don’t worry about what’s in it for them but seek to help followers achieve their best.

The poem is proudly displayed in my home and serves as a constant reminder of the leadership qualities I aspire to have. Below, I reflect on how I incorporate the poem’s principles in my leadership practices.

Behold the Stockman! Artist and Artisan.
He may be polished or a diamond in the rough—but always a gem.
Whose devotion to his animals is second only to his love of God and family.     

As a leader, I am far from perfect, but I am passionately devoted to the people I lead and serve. The devotion described in Mumford’s poem is reminiscent of Greenleaf’s servant leadership model and a major reason I ascribe to the theory.

Whose gripping affection is tempered only by his inborn sense of the true proportion of things.
Who cheerfully braves personal discomfort to make sure his livestock suffer not.
To him there is rhythm in the clatter of the horse’s hoof, music in the bleating of the sheep and in the lowing of the herd.

Often, leaders are put in uncomfortable situations. Whether it’s going above and beyond to help a team member with an assignment or deal with a difficult time, a good leader always puts the needs of a follower first. At times, we must endure discomfort to meet the needs of team members. It might be extra time helping a colleague or offering advice to help him or her improve a skill. As leaders, it is our job to “hear” what people who report to us need. Employees who feel comfortable and heard will feel appreciated and work harder.

His approaching footsteps call forth the affectionate whinny of recognition.
His calm, well-modulated voice inspires confidence and wins affection.
His coming is greeted with demonstrations of pleasure and his going with evident disappointment.           

As a leader, one of my main goals is to instill a sense of security and confidence in my co-workers. This is critical not only to the institution, but also to me as a developing leader. It is difficult for leaders to institute change and guide institutions if they don’t have the confidence of the people they lead.

In the past, when I worked on a campus, this was a bit easier to accomplish because I utilized the management by walking around (MBWA) theory. It is more challenging now that I’m a leader of an online university. I have had to develop alternative methods, such as utilizing technology to enable visualization and enhance “connectedness,” meeting with various groups to make them feel part of the university, and having “coffee talks” that allow students and faculty to call in just to talk or ask questions.

Who sees something more in cows than the drudgery of milking,
more in swine than the grunt and squeal, more in the horse than
the patient servant, and more in sheep than the golden hoof.           

As leaders, our jobs are often less than glamorous. We are faced with difficult decisions, long hours, stressful days, frustrated colleagues, etc. Yet, despite these obstacles, we continue to lead to the best of our ability. One might ask, why? It is because we love what we do. There is a sense of satisfaction that occurs with a job well done.

Herdsman, shepherd, groom—yes and more.
Broadminded, big-hearted, whole-souled; whose life and character linger long after the cordial greeting is stilled
and the hearty handshake is but a memory; whose silent influence forever lives.

May his kind multiply and replenish the earth.           

There are many characteristics that describe a true leader. Visible in day-to-day actions, they are literally part of the “heart and soul” of a true leader. Such a person leaves a memory that lasts long after he or she has gone.          

I aspire to be that type of leader. I hope that, as I continue in my leadership development, the words of this poem continue to echo in my mind and remind me of my true mission.

Leadership is not about me, but how I motivate and help others. In working with future educators and nursing leaders, I want to help them become the best leaders possible and strengthen the profession of nursing. RNL

Editor’s note: Elaine Foster will present “Starting and Operating an Educational and Executive Leadership DNP Program: From A to Z,” on Sunday, 29 October, at the 44th Biennial Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. See the Virginia Henderson Global Nursing e-Repository for additional information.

Elaine Foster, PhD, RN, is dean, Nursing and Healthcare Programs, American Sentinel University, Aurora, Colorado, USA.

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