On Leadership

Members | October 06, 2020 | by Carol Silver Elliott

Carol Silver Elliott, board chair of LeadingAge, reflects on servant-leadership.

I recently had the opportunity to be a part of a pre-conference workshop for LeadingAge Maine and New Hampshire. Our topic was leadership and we had some formal conversation on leadership and the lessons of COVID before we opened it up to the attendees. We asked them to share a word that captured what they learned about themselves and their leadership as we’ve moved through these days of crisis.

I was struck by the honesty and candor of the group as well as self-perception and thoughtfulness. These were individuals, speaking to professional colleagues and sharing from the heart, wholly without reservation. Individuals acknowledged their own humanity, their own vulnerability, their own feelings of grief as well as frustration.

As I thought about this powerful conversation, one of the themes that I heard in every comment was selflessness, each person reflecting a focus that was clearly and unshakably on the needs of the elders and the needs of the staff. Early in my career in acute care, a venerable physician and elder statesman at our health system introduced me to Robert Greenleaf’s concept of “servant leadership.” It was how he defined his career and it so neatly fit the words I heard from our colleagues during this session.

Servant leadership begins with the concept of wanting to serve others first then making a conscious choice to lead. The contrast is with someone whose style is best described as leader-first. Servant-first is focused on making certain that other people’s highest priority needs are being served before their own. Servant leaders are focused on the growth and well-being of the people and community they serve rather than on the traditional accumulation and exercise of power.

Each of the leaders who spoke during this program, and each of you as leaders in long-term care, embodies Greenleaf’s principles of servant leadership. You have demonstrated that over and over in recent months as you have fought to keep your elders safe, to help them heal, to keep them well in mind, body, and spirit, and to continue to grow and support your teams and your colleagues.

Being a leader is not without its challenges and stresses, even at the best of times. During these endless months of COVID, it would not be difficult to argue that, in many ways, these are the worst of times. Yet, over and over, this crisis has reinforced our commitment to the work that we do and the people that we serve. You are shining examples of what it means to lead—to lead with heart, mind, and instinct and to do whatever you can for those we are called to serve.