Quantifying leadership practices and strategies to maximum effect is not new and neither are the many different forms, such quantification can lead to. If you browse the business section of a bookstore or Amazon, you’ll find scads of leadership books focusing on leading by example, leading from behind/above/nearby, leading like {insert famous fictional character here}, leading with Machiavellian style and so on.

Leadership is important, and we would be remiss as HR leaders not to spend time defining how we choose to lead and discussing how our roles can guide the concept of leadership within our organizations.

I want to share with you the leadership style I have found to work best within my team and organization at Cancer Treatment Centers of America© (CTCA): servant leadership.

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is a long-standing philosophy with notable historical proponents, including Plato, Lao-tsu, Cicero, Adam Smith, Henry David Thoreau and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as many other Christian philosophers and members of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s and adopted by several prominent companies, such as SAS, Zappos, Whole Foods Market and Starbucks, the subtle influence of this set of leadership practices can be utilized in business, politics and social spheres.

Unlike other forms of leadership (autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire, charismatic, transformational, etc.) that conceive leadership technique as the means to an end, a servant-leader focuses on working within a role (regardless of their level of responsibility or input) to act in service to those around them.

In Greenleaf’s own words:

“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.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, although difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

This leadership style is a good example of a universal leadership philosophy that many can adopt at all levels within an organization. We practice and encourage servant leadership at CTCA© as this philosophy is at the core of what we do every day for our patients.

Make It Your Priority

So where do we start? The easiest step is to actively decide and then adopt the attitude of a servant leader, making it a priority for your daily work. We start with our immediate area of influence (ourselves) and build outward:

  • Did I ask, “How can I help” today?
  • Did I approach my work today with the attitude that it is beneficial/valuable for others and is intrinsically good?
  • Did I volunteer my time to assist my co-workers with their projects?
  • Did I demonstrate a genuine interest in what my team (either teammates or employees) were trying to accomplish?
  • Did I find value in even the smallest of my actions as they relate to the “big picture” of what our organization does?

The more you embrace this style of selfless focus, the more you will start to recognize areas where you and your team can help your organization. The willingness to help is infectious and you will soon find others willing to offer assistance to each other; this then snowballs into the leadership aspect of the servant-leader.

As a concept, adopting this attitude might seem hard at first. For many of us, the idea of going to work and accomplishing our tasks is an effort on its own, something with an end goal in sight. The servant-leader, on the other hand, embraces the journey of productivity and creation of value as the goal. “Jobs” become “professions” as we allow the value of our work to become a key component of who we are.

Spreading From Within

Changing (sometimes fundamentally) how we approach our careers is a very personal activity but as the act of leading through service touches others profoundly, the potential benefits to our organizations can’t be ignored. Much of my work is meant to support our goal as HR leaders to benefit our employees and, in turn, our organizations. Hiring the best candidates we can, providing good working environments, soliciting and utilizing feedback, supporting programs for continued education and training: these create the sort of environments people want to work in. Sustainable business models and corporate responsibility become functional parts of how we work.

Eric Magnussen

Eric Magnussen is an executive with over 16 years of experience leading both marketing and talent/human resources organizations in a high-growth, rapidly evolving, 4,600-person healthcare organization. He has broad experience interfacing with staffing, reporting, boards of directors, national board committees, C-suite executives and front-line leaders.