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Servant leadership

Servant leadership- it seems like a paradox, yet I believe that this model of leadership is widely applicable and appropriate in nursing, and throughout healthcare. While a great deal has been written about the need for nurses in leadership, the need for nurses continues.

To address the need for nurses to lead in healthcare, I recently wrote an article for Nursing 2016, with my colleague Robert Toomey. He teaches the Servant Leadership programs at UW-Madison Continuing Studies, where I teach about Palliative Care, and have integrated servant leadership theory into my programs.

We each brought our expertise to the writing, and together we were able to identify ways that nurses can use the servant leadership model to become leaders themselves. Some of the characteristics of servant leaders include:

Listening, Empathy, Vision, Self-awareness, and a Commitment to Others’ Growth.

Not your typical leadership characteristics, but the make sense. AND they fit nurses. We can relate to these characteristics, because this is how we try to interact with our patients.

I always learn something in writing, and these are a few lessons I learned through writing about and reflecting on this topic:

  1. Servant leadership is an attitude and mindset.
  2. Servant leadership is a conscious decision.
  3. Servant leadership is a way of interacting with others.
  4. Servant leadership is a process of becoming over time.

In other words, it takes work, and it’s an ongoing process. And if you do it right, rather than becoming more self-important over time, you will become more humble, even as your influence grows.

As nurses, we are often more comfortable in the background supporting others rather than being at the head of the table and having power. However, I believe that if we consciously decide to lead, guided by a servant leadership model, and receiving and giving mentorship over time, we will become the leaders that we believe are needed, and we will have influence in the areas where we recognize a need for change.


The Conversation

Over the years of working as a nurse and as an advocate for my own family and friends, I’ve learned that conversations are critical.

  • Conversations with loved ones.
  • Conversations between loved ones.
  • Conversations with those on the healthcare team:  doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains.

As a result, I’ve sought out tools that help others understand the importance of the conversation, how to have the difficult but important conversations that will determine their future, and how to get it in writing.  Here are my favorite advance care planning tools and process:



  • Five Wishes– Far more specific, this is a legal AD in 42 states including WI

There are many more options out there, and every conversation, individual and family is unique, so I welcome your comments and experiences.



The Courage to Seek Care

One of the things that my students and I have observed time after time in working with patients is that many we are caring for in the hospital have delayed seeking care. Once they did seek care, many ended up getting bad news, such as a terminal diagnosis or finding that they have not only what they were admitted for, but other serious illnesses. Continue reading

Cultivating empathy in healthcare

Cultivating empathy in healthcare

This article has reminded me of my own passion for cultivating empathy in those who provide healthcare, and those who influence policies that impact those in need. Continue reading

Patient Engagement or Provider Engagement?

“We need to promote improved patient and family engagement in their care.”

Listening to a lecture today, I’m struck by this statement, as my morning was once again challenged by the reality of a family member who is oh so engaged, but whose healthcare providers are not adequately meeting his needs. With advanced complex multifactorial chronic illness, he is experiencing ongoing symptoms and worsening limitations, and yet is reluctant to contact his specialist yet again. More challenging yet, he has multiple specialists- his heart problems the domain of cardiology, the lung problems the responsibility of the pulmonologist and the pain management under the care of his primary care provider. Yet no one really sees him as a whole person, or has attempted to treat all problems together to improve his quality of life. No one is really following him, or is proactively engaged in his care. Continue reading