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Welcome to the the Office of the President

A Life of Servant Leadership: Student Leadership Recognition Ceremony

April 16, 2008

It is a great honor for me to address you this evening. At the Medical University, we have the good fortune of being able to select our students from among the smartest and most motivated young people in South Carolina and beyond. You, the leaders of our various student organizations, represent the cream of an already highly selected crop, so it is a special privilege for me to be able to share a few thoughts with you tonight.

My most important message to you is to thank you for all that you do for your fellow students and for the Medical University. Our campus and our community are better places because of your efforts. There is a long list of accomplishments that could be mentioned in areas such as student life, public service, and academic achievement. Rather than singling out any individual efforts, and thereby risking the omission of many other accomplishments worthy of note, let me congratulate you collectively for a job well done. I could not be more proud of each of you and grateful for all that you do.

As we celebrate what has been accomplished this year, we also are reminded that there is even more opportunity for progress ahead. For example, Mike Drake, outgoing president of SGA, told the MUSC Board of Trustees recently that he had a vision that one day, perhaps when his children are attending the Medical University, there will be a parking space for every student who wants one. Call Mike a dreamer if you wish, but his dreams are built out of concrete and steel, and in Mike's dreams, everybody gets in past the entrance gate. One can only wonder what Dr. Freud would have said about such dreams, but that is another story altogether. Seriously, Mike has been a great spokesman for the student body and we will miss him as he moves on to the next phase of his career.

I have been asked to talk to you tonight on the topic of leadership. Admittedly, this feels a bit like preaching to the choir. You, after all, are leaders already. What can I possibly tell you that you haven't learned through the far better teacher of personal experience? I could talk about leadership until I am blue in the face, but there is no substitute for the real life practical experience of being in a leadership role. As you have been there and done that already, this talk seems a bit out of sequence. Aren't you supposed to have the lecture before you take the final examination, not afterwards?

And even if this is a good time to talk about leadership, am I really the one to be giving such an address? Why would the organizers ask me to give this talk – other than the obvious fact that there is no speaker's fee involved? After a little reflection, it became clear to me that the person invited to give a speech on leadership to this group had to be someone who could talk from their own personal experience – someone who had led an organization through challenging times, had demonstrated a bold vision, and who had inspired others along the way. Well, apparently the organizers could find nobody who fit that description, so in total desperation, they asked me to step in.

With that caveat in mind, I want to start with a quote that is particularly apt for this audience. It comes from an editorial that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as a college senior, wrote in the Harvard Crimson. Roosevelt observed that:

"In looking back over the college careers of those who for various reasons have been prominent in undergraduate life . . . one cannot help noticing that these men have nearly always shown from the start an interest in the lives of their fellow students. A large acquaintance means that many persons are dependent on a man and conversely that he himself is dependent on many. Success necessarily means larger responsibilities, and responsibilities mean many friends.”

If, for a moment, we look past the obvious gender bias in this century-old quotation, there remains an important truth about leadership in general and student leadership in particular. The essential driving force for leadership should not be personal ambition, but rather, it should be an interest and concern for the needs of others.

In young Roosevelt's words, written almost three decades before he became President of the United States, one can almost anticipate his leadership style as one of the greatest statesmen in our history. An empathy for his fellow citizens was paramount in his efforts to end the Great Depression and to win the Second World War. Perhaps this type of leadership was best described in 1977 by Robert Greenleaf in his famous essay Essentials of Servant Leadership, where he wrote that:

"The servant-leader is servant first . . . Becoming a servant-leader 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 . . . 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, and the most difficult to administer, is this: 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?”

When the servant leader test is applied to FDR, there can be little question that the nation emerged from his leadership a healthier, wiser, and freer people, and clearly, the least privileged were among the greatest beneficiaries. Of course, we cannot all be like Franklin Roosevelt. To use him as an example may make the concept of a servant leader seem more remote – the kind of leadership that comes along only on the grand stage, and at most, once in a generation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Servant leadership can be manifest on the day-to-day level in which you and I lead lives. There is probably no better description of this idea than that given by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles in his book Lives of Moral Leadership:

"A range of individuals can bring us up morally, can become part of a nation's moral fiber – a child, an adult, a person in politics, or one quietly trying to get through a seemingly quite ordinary life. Suddenly and surprisingly we can become an example to others – or those others to us: they hand us along, become a source of moral encouragement to us, arouse us and stir us, move us to do things when we might otherwise not be provoked, and they have the will to act in pursuit of purposes we have come to regard as important."

We can all think of examples in our own lives in which others have been an example to each of us. For many of us, it is a parent or grandparent who sets this example. For others, it is a teacher or a fellow student who sets this example. What matters is not what formal role such a person plays in our lives, but how they, in Coles' words: "arouse us and stir us, move us to do things when we might otherwise not be provoked.”

What is it about these individuals that allows them to have such profound impact upon us? Without question, an essential ingredient is what Roosevelt characterized as ‘an interest in our lives.' They care about us and that personal interest translates into a nurturing relationship. Spears built upon this basic idea when he created a list of "Ten Characteristics of the Servant-Leader.” His list included: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Obviously, this is not a recipe in which one adds a cup of listening to a tablespoon of empathy, stirring in a pinch of healing, and flavoring to taste with awareness and persuasion. It is not the individual traits per se, but rather how they are mixed together that creates the behavioral pattern of a servant leader.

When one thinks about this list, it bears a remarkable similarity to what we might expect to find in an ideal health care provider. In fact, a recently published study of 200 patients treated at the Mayo Clinic found that there were seven traits that these people wanted in their physician. The ideal doctor was one who was: confident, empathetic, humane, personal, forthright, respectful, and thorough. While the reference here was to physicians, one might reasonably assume that it applies to other health care providers as well. It is noteworthy that technical skills did not make this list of traits most desired by patients of their providers.

I am not aware of any literature that addresses the similarity between the traits of a servant leader and those of a health care provider. Of course, that does not mean that the topic has not been discussed elsewhere, but if it has been written about, it has escaped my search engines. The link between servant leadership and clinical care seems like a natural topic for exploration, especially for this audience – a group of student leaders who are pursuing careers in health-related fields. Since most of you are headed towards professions involving patient care, I hope that those of you who are pursuing research, teaching or administrative roles will still find these comments to be relevant.

At first blush, it may seem that patient-care, which typically is delivered one-on-one, would have little in common with leadership, which by definition is an exercise in group process. There are other aspects that differ between these two endeavors. For example, clinical work usually involves a strong element of privacy, whereas leadership tends to occur in a more public context. The clinical encounter tends to be relatively brief and episodic, in contrast to the sustained engagement of a servant leader with their constituents.

Despite these clear differences, success in both the clinical and leadership arenas is first and foremost about human interaction. At the risk of oversimplification, the clinician's task is to gain an understanding of the patient's problem, to communicate that knowledge to the patient, and to jointly develop a plan of action to address the problem. Success in this setting depends heavily upon the trust that the patient has in the clinician, the ability of the clinician to develop rapport with the patient through empathy, being a good listener and a clear communicator, and making sound recommendations.

A servant leader must be able to assess a situation, develop a course of action, and motivate other people to join in the proposed plan. Success in this setting depends upon the ability to appreciate the viewpoints of others, to develop a strategic direction and to express it in a manner that motivates others to support the recommended actions.

In other words, neither clinicians nor servant leaders do their work in isolation. Their jobs are inherently about hearing the concerns of others and responding to those concerns with knowledge and compassion. Whether one does this one-on-one or in groups, whether one does this in private or in public, whether one does this in brief interactions or in continuity, it still involves interpersonal behavior.

Why, then, do we look around and see so few health care professionals in community leadership roles? Whether one considers politics, or religion, or public agencies, or charitable organizations, or arts organizations, very few of the leadership positions tend to be filled by health care professionals. Of course there are exceptions, sometimes very visible exceptions. But on the whole, those of us in the health professions tend to be remarkably under-represented in leadership roles in other aspects of community life. Why is that?

The truth of the matter is that I don't know for certain. You and I can speculate on the underlying reasons: health care professionals are busy people; health care professionals feel like they give enough on the job; health care professionals tend to be so absorbed in their work that they do not develop interests more broadly. Whatever the reason, the fact still remains that in my generation health care professionals tend to shy away from leadership roles in their communities.

This is where you come in. I see in you the possibility for a different future. My hope is that you will sustain the leadership roles that you have assumed as students and continue them throughout your professional careers. In my humble opinion, you represent our best hope for the future. You have the intellect, you have the skills, you have the experience, and you have the compassion. In short, you have what it takes to be great servant leaders. The question is, are you committed for the long run?

I certainly hope that the answer is yes. South Carolina and the nation, indeed the world, needs you to remain servant leaders throughout your lives. Surely, it is presumptuous to ask this of you. It is a request that goes beyond the call of duty for which you are being educated here.

First and foremost, you are here to learn how to be a successful practitioner in your respective field of study. We also hope to instill in you values that will help you become an effective citizen and family member. To achieve success in any one of these arenas is a worthy accomplishment on its own. It is an unreasonable request to ask any more of you. But tonight, without the least bit of hesitation, I ask you to use your experience as student leaders as preparation of even greater service in the years ahead. In the words of Woodrow Wilson: "There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the highest creed.”

I know that you will take Wilson's words to heart and I thank you for all that you have done and all that you will continue to do in the future.