Why servant and transformational leadership are rare

As a novice leader I learned through reading  followed by experimenting with what I was learning.  I’m forever in debt to my team at the time for indulging me.  Without the opportunity to experiment and practice, I wouldn’t have developed into a leader.  My organization also provided me with a professional coach, which was essential for learning from the results of my experiments and reflecting on my practice.

With knowledge and experience I entered larger circles where it appeared that most weren’t reading the same books.  There were a few who were, and thank goodness for them.  As a physician leader I was following a different set of principles and driven by a different set of values than most.  It wasn’t an easy path.  My resolve, however, grew stronger, because every time I doubted myself, that original team cheered me on.  They knew long before I did, that I was a servant leader.

My continued hunger for knowledge eventually brought me to learn about servant leadership. When I first read about it, it seemed so obvious.   And it helped me realize who I was as a leader and why I found it so hard to be a good one. It would have been easier to only worry about my own success and always be looking to boost my own ego. I was doing servant leadership and it was hard.

Years later in the optional reading list of one of my classes at Harvard was an article entitled: “The Power of Servant Leadership to Transform Health Care Organizations for the 21st Century Economy.” It was written by Richard Schwartz and Thomas Tumblin and published in 2002 (10 years earlier!).  I fell of my chair when I realized Dr. Schwartz was a surgeon, and the article was published in the Archives of Surgery (no disrespect to my surgical colleagues, but renewed respect).

As I read it I couldn’t help as a student of leadership to think that the concepts being professed in this article were revolutionary and exactly what we needed in healthcare (they were hypothesizing the same). I thought to myself, “So, why hasn’t the concept caught on?” Well… because it’s hard.  duh.

Applying the concepts of servant, situational and transformational leadership to drive a learning organization is brilliant, but it’s hard. One would think it might be easier in health care than other industries. Not so.   Why?

First, how we choose our leaders, especially our physician leaders, is not aligned with these styles of leadership.   Why is that?  Two reasons: 1) these attributes and skills are rare, and 2) the things we look for in our physician leaders are counter to them.

Second, how we train our leaders does very little to foster the attributes of these three styles. Why? Two reasons: 1) those doing the training, the mentoring and setting the example don’t often have them, and 2) it takes a tremendous amount of self-reflection and self-awareness to be a servant leader.  It happens through self-driven training and transformation, and too many of us aren’t reflecting and aren’t aware enough.  One’s emotional intelligence must be high.

And finally, those who become physicians, those who are most driven to succeed and therefore be put in the leader spotlight got there because of a relentless focus on their own achievement, not on the achievement of teams and others.

Time to change the paradigm.