Managing Change in Healthcare through Servant Leadership

November 19, 2020 Claire Aldred, Managing Director, UK & Europe


Building a listening and sharing culture to create a positive workplace where staff can flourish is a key step in managing change successfully. 

In our last article ‘Managing cultural change in a crisis’, we explored how healthcare leaders who invest personally and emotionally in establishing a positive workplace environment can influence significant change despite the challenges that face them such as increased workloads and staff shortages.

Success begins with examining the leadership culture. An eminent professor at London Business School once said, “no matter how long you’ve been in your role or how hard the journey was to get there – you are merely an overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees.”[i]  It’s a salient reminder for many leaders. In times of crisis, it is easy to become so focused on outcomes and keeping control that employees can end up as simply a means to an end.  The result is a culture of fear that stifles productivity, is demoralising and in the longer term, threatens to diminish patient care.

The best leaders are humble
The traditional top-down leadership style is outdated, and more importantly, ineffectual. Far better to help people feel purposeful, motivated, and energised so they can bring their best selves to work and are empowered to deliver outstanding patient care.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to adopt the humble mind-set of a servant leader. While the term ‘servant leadership’ may sound counter-intuitive, caring for others is among the key ethical and professional values of good healthcare. It is also a basic tenet for servant leadership making it the perfect management model for the healthcare industry. 

3 ways to adopt a servant leadership approach
Servant leadership might have a low profile but it has long been a recognised management style. How many times do you hear a successful team leader or CEO being interviewed say that the secret of their success is that they surround themselves with good people? With so much uncertainty in the healthcare sector, now is the perfect time for leaders to explore a different approach to leadership that drives positive change across their immediate team and the wider organisation. Here are a few tips for getting started:

Embrace the top 10 characteristics of servant leadership - a servant leader is one that focuses on supporting and enabling their people to flourish in their roles and to be the very best that they can.  The top ten characteristics of servant leadership are:

  • listening,
  • empathy,
  • healing,
  • awareness,
  • persuasion,
  • conceptualisation,
  • foresight,
  • stewardship,
  • commitment to the growth of people and
  • building a community.[ii] 

Listen, share, enable "If only he had spent a day working with us, he would know that was a bad idea" is a common frustration among staff.  Servant leaders know that every voice matters and make time to listen to their teams, ask questions and then find ways to help staff become their best possible selves.  They also understand the importance of evidencing their commitment to staff engagement for example, by sharing the positive ways that team members have addressed specific issues and identifying lessons learnt in a constructive and transparent way. 

What you don’t know can hurt you –when former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld outlined considerations for whether or not to invade Iraq in 2003, he said that there were known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Missing from this neat construct, however, was one crucial bucket: unknown knowns.[iii]  It seems like an odd concept but if you place it in a healthcare context, it becomes glaringly obvious. 

For example, the news is full of stories about increased workloads and demoralised staff – issues that have long plagued the sector even before COVID-19 - but if healthcare leaders don’t take positive steps to address these issues within their own organisations, they might as well remain ‘unknown knowns’ with devastating consequences for staff numbers and non-COVID-related patient care.  Good servant leaders intuitively understand that what they don’t know really can hurt them – ignorance is no defence.  They actively go out of their way to understand all the risks in their organisation, support their teams in embracing the complexity of problems, and making sure that where needed complex problems get complex solutions. 

Invest in the right technology
Managing change through servant leadership is the first step towards a more enlightened workplace culture.  Investing in information systems that facilitate the journey towards servant leadership is the next step.  With the right software, leaders can see at a glance exactly what is happening across their organisation and so avoid the ‘unknown knowns’ that prevent them from making the best strategic decisions and potentially undermine confidence in their teams. 

For more information, ideas and inspiration, visit  or read our blog: Managing Cultural Change in a Crisis. 

Claire is the Managing Director for the United Kingdom and Europe (UKE). She brings over 10 years of building strong and long-lasting relationships with customers – placing a focus on ensuring their experience from the start of the sales journey all through the support process is positive.

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