From the editor: Servant leader, the kind of leader you want to follow

James E. Mattson | 01/24/2020

It is easier to follow a servant leader than a self-serving one.


I hope you’re following the seven-part series by Rene Steinhauer titled “Nursing leadership styles: The good, the bad, and the ugly.” In addition to identifying three leadership styles—transformational, autocratic, and laissez-faire—that can be characterized as good, bad, and ugly, Steinhauer steps back and offers additional perspectives on situations in which leadership styles that normally might be viewed as bad or ugly are actually good. I encourage you to read all six installments.
As I thought about the insights Steinhauer shares, I was reminded of the term “servant leadership.” Servant leadership is an oxymoron, a term that combines opposing or contradictory ideas. In that clash of concepts—leaders who serve—we find the secret behind the effectiveness of servant leaders. By putting themselves in the place of a server, these leaders come to understand the perspectives of those they lead and thus become more effective in motivating them and achieving a desired result.
James E. MattsonThat brings to mind a 2014 article I wrote about Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, an epilogue to a 2011 profile. When I interviewed Melnyk for the original article, she was “serving”—and I use that term advisedly, as you’ll see in a minute—as dean of nursing at Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. When I wrote the follow-up article, she had relocated 2,000 miles east to serve as dean of nursing at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus.
Melnyk wasn’t the only one who relocated. Twelve ASU faculty and staff members also moved so they could continue working with her. What accounts for their loyalty? I asked Melnyk. Her response is provided in a sidebar titled “Secret sauce for leaders.”
“I think, Jim,” said Melnyk, “if you fuel people’s dreams and you support them to attain their dreams and their goals, that’s what it’s all about, really, and it’s about personal connection. I think that’s secret sauce for a leader. It really is. I see a lot of leaders who are really good at process and implementation, but they often wonder why they have difficulty sustaining their efforts or holding onto people they want to hold on to. I tell everybody all the time, you’ve got to have an exciting team vision that people buy into, and then you support these people. I like to be the wind beneath people’s wings.” 
That’s servant leadership. That’s walk-the-walk leadership.
Although I have edited virtually all the feature content published in RNL in the past 16 years, I wondered what a search of the magazine in the 11 years since it went online would reveal. I found servant leadership—both the term and the concept—alive and well.
For example, a 2010 article titled “New dean leads with a servant’s heart” provided a compelling profile of Anita Siccardi, EdD, APRN, BC, then recently appointed dean of the School of Nursing at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Reflecting on her wartime nursing experience during Operation Desert Storm, she told Barbara Bennett, the author of the article, “We were followers and leaders, or leaders and followers, depending on the needs of the situation.” Bennett observed, “Knowing when to step forward and when to follow are part of [Siccardi’s] ‘servant leadership’ style.”
Siccardi recently stepped down from her role as dean of nursing at Marian, but not before being recognized for her effective leadership with the Indy Star’s “Salute to Nursing” Advancement in Nursing Award. All the best in your retirement, Dean Siccardi!
In a three-part 2015 series titled “Conversations with scholar-mentors,” author Kathleen Heinrich mentioned a participant in one of her scholarly development workshops who referred to scholar-mentors as servant-leaders who see their role as helping faculty members reach their potential. As Heinrich observed, “This stands in stark contrast to narcissistic administrators with an ‘it’s all about me, me, me’ attitude.”
In articles published more recently, I find the term “servant leadership” in pieces about Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy (NFLA) and Experienced Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy (ENFLA). In “NFLA gave lift to my leadership journey,” Jennifer Embree observed: “Providing faculty mentoring, connecting people and resources, and exemplifying servant leadership, the NFLA continues its impact on my ability to guide others.”
In “She was born to be a nurse, but something was missing!,” Rebecca Lee described her ENFLA journey: “I found myself eagerly reading leadership texts and engaging in leadership conversations with other nurses, faculty, and students. I also compared the unique styles of nurse leaders around me with my emerging vision of nursing leadership. During this process, I was drawn to the concept of servant leadership, as defined by Robert Greenleaf. This understanding and appreciation of my own way of leading in the world will influence the remainder of my career.”
Greenleaf founded what would become the Robert K. Greenleaf Servant Leadership Center. And what is servant leadership, as he defines it? “The servant-leader is servant first … . The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.”
Given a choice, I prefer the latter, the one who, in coming to serve, ends up leading—the leader Steinhauer describes as “walking the walk.”
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James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.

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