Servant Leadership: Finding the Right Shoe that Fits
By Gina de Peralta Thorne, MS
Walk into any bookstore and there are shelves filled with “experts” offering insight into effective leadership. Google leadership and over 470 million search results are at your disposal. Online articles, newsfeeds and tweets feature the art of strong leadership. Seems like everywhere we turn, there is no shortage of information teaching and empowering us to be strong and successful leaders.
Leadership has been stylized like shoes. Some are flashy and overstated, others more practical. Regardless, one size does not fit all. Look at any group, business or organization and the leadership style often parallels the personality of the leader and sets the tone for the goals and culture of the organization. Is one style better than another?
Democratic, autocratic, transactional, and transformational leadership, we have all been engaged in organizations using one of these styles. Over my twenty year career in the fields of prevention and addiction treatment, I learned the good, bad and ugly from different leaders. The benefits of these opportunities allowed me to adopt the leadership traits that married with my value system while others that prevented me from growing personally and professionally were left behind.
In 2013, I was introduced to a profound form of leadership that magnified my core values, allowed me to express the best parts of who I am and fundamentally align with my passion for working in the recovery field.
Servant Leadership, considered a timeless concept was coined by Robert Greenleaf, an established AT&T executive with close to 40 years of management experience, in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader.” In this missive he shares how Servant Leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations and ultimately creates a more caring world. The catalyst for my epiphany into Servant Leadership was Roy M. Serpa, President and CEO for Lakeview Health. I joined Lakeview at a time of early transformation. Lakeview was an established treatment program in Jacksonville, Florida for over a decade but was hardly known locally, regionally or nationally.
While Roy was not a seasoned addictions expert when he joined the Lakeview team, he was deeply skilled and experienced in positively influencing culture change, leadership and organizational growth. He learned quickly that Lakeview’s “secret sauce” and its greatest potential was hidden in the people. By mentoring and coaching the leadership to adopt a servant-leader focus, he showed us how we could collectively transform our organization into a Center of Excellence.
As we began to incorporate the core characteristics of Servant Leadership, listening, empathy, healing, persuasion, awareness, foresight, conceptualization, commitment to growth of people, stewardship and building community, we transformed into a recovery community that believes that all touched by the disease from addiction can recover.
“No one person can take on the disease of addiction alone. Our solution is to bring in the brightest people we can possibly find and give them the tools and resources they need to do their best work.” Roy M. Serpa.
What does it mean to be a server –level leader? Greenleaf writes a 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.
While traditional leadership is powered by decision making from the top down, servant leadership is inverted. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people they work with to be the best they can be. Are you currently a servant leader? Ask yourself, do the people I serve, manage or supervise grow personally and professionally? Do they become healthier, stronger, and wiser, more focused and carry the desire of servant leadership to others?
The introduction of Servant Leadership has profoundly impacted the lives of our patients, families and staff. Staff are happier, more engaged and feel more valued. Staff turnover dropped from 87% in 2012 to 30% one year later. When guests visit, we hear often how positive the staff is, how willing they are to help and to share their story of commitment to the Lakeview mission. Patients and families feel this commitment and feel empowered in their recovery journey.
What we didn’t anticipate, was how this style of leadership would resonate in the larger industry of addiction treatment. As a student in the field, Roy travelled the country learning about the many treatment and recovery programs offered across the continuum. Most had neither heard of nor adopted a Servant Leadership approach. What surprised him was how closely aligned the values of Servant Leadership connected to Recovery and why it just made sense to incorporate this practice in behavioral health.
You don’t have to go far into the Steps to find the parallels of Servant Leadership and Recovery. Our common welfare should come first, personal recovery depends on Unity” and the third tradition “….Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern”. (12 Steps and 12 Traditions, AA Grapevine, Inc., 1953, pgs. 9-10). Leadership in Recovery is a powerful combination. Recovery is predicated on servant leadership.
As a person in recovery, Paul Schmitz, author of Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up writes the following insights into his experience in leadership and recovery. There are no silver bullets, people’s needs change and relationships matter more than programs, mentors matter most, own your mistakes and failures, welcome and don’t judge other people’s stories, practice acceptance and gratitude and finally pay it forward.
As CRC’s continue to evolve and grow, the principles of Servant Leadership can be a powerful driver toward increased success in building healthy communities of recovery. Tom Hill, Recovery Advocate and champion for Recovery Oriented Systems of Care wrote in CommonStrength: Building Leaders, Transforming Recovery (2005) Servant leadership is more than a style of leadership, rather a way of engaging with the world that engenders listening, empathy, healing and humility. Within the work of Servant Leadership, acts of service (giving of oneself freely) are central to the growth in others, nurturing human potential and building community.
So, it’s true there are various styles of leadership, and each organization has a responsibility to determine which style works best for them. But after actively engaging in and witnessing the positive changes from a Servant Leadership approach, I found this shoe fits and you might to.
Gina de Peralta Thorne, MS is an advocate for recovery. She has worked in addressing population level change within the fields of prevention and treatment. She currently works at Lakeview Health in Jacksonville, Florida as the VP of Marketing. Her focus is to help usher those who are “sick and tired” of being “sick and tired” to a place where hope and recovery from addiction is possible.