Servant Leadership in Nursing

Two nurses review a document at a nurses’ station.

To ensure that patients receive the highest standard of care, nurses have to work together as a cohesive, coherent team. This level of coordinated care calls for clear and effective leadership. One of the most popular methods of effective nursing leadership is known as servant leadership.

What is servant leadership in nursing? Put most simply, it’s an approach to leadership in which nursing leaders focus on the needs of their team members. Proponents of the servant leadership model say that it can address some of the most common problems within the nursing profession, including burnout and turnover, all while improving employee engagement and ultimately promoting better nursing outcomes. Servant leadership models may be adopted to improve patient safety, or simply to create opportunities for better patient advocacy.

The servant leadership model is one example of nurse leadership strategies that may be gained through an advanced education, such as by earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is defined by the centrality of the leader-follower relationship. Under the servant leadership model, nursing leaders focus on the needs of their team members first and foremost.

Moral and Spiritual Elements

While the servant leadership method is nonsectarian in nature, it has often been associated with different schools of spirituality and moral thought. There is a strong ethical component to servant leadership, which sees the leader’s calling as one of empowering followers to flourish. In the servant leadership model, nurse leaders provide their team members with all the resources and infrastructure they need to do their job at the highest level and to succeed professionally.

Comparisons with Other Leadership Styles

One helpful way to understand servant leadership in nursing is to contrast it with other leadership styles.

Servant leadership differs from autocratic leadership in some important ways. An autocratic leader typically makes a lot of hands-on decisions, generally without seeking input from their followers. A servant leadership approach always takes seriously the stated needs of team members.

Similarly, servant leadership differs from democratic leadership. Democratic leadership empowers team members by directly involving them in decision-making, while servant leadership empowers employees by supporting them as they pursue their goals.

Another popular leadership style is transformational leadership. While this method differs from servant leadership, the distinction between them is subtle. Servant leadership focuses on supporting individuals within an organization; by contrast, transformational leadership focuses on inspiring leaders to work toward a shared goal. Servant leaders tend to be more behind the scenes in their approach, while transformational leaders strive to be more engaging and inspiring.

How Can Nurses Benefit from Servant Leadership?

The servant leadership approach can yield a number of significant benefits.

A Natural Fit

Many nursing teams find that the servant leadership model is natural, even intuitive. This is because nursing is by its very nature a caring profession and tends to attract people who see meeting the needs of others as part of their mission. As such, adopting a servant leadership model may come fairly easily to many nursing teams.

Additional Benefits of Servant Leadership in Nursing

Some additional advantages of the servant leadership approach include:

  • Servant leadership can empower leaders to meet the varied needs of a diverse team.
  • The servant leadership approach is nurturing and supportive, which can help to stave off burnout.
  • By decreasing burnout, servant leadership can also reduce turnover on a particular nursing team.
  • Servant leadership promotes the sharing of knowledge among nurses, and fosters interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • Servant leadership may also boost employee creativity, increase job satisfaction, and improve job performance.

What Can Nurses Do to Implement Servant Leadership?

Nurses who desire to become servant leaders should consider a number of tips and strategies.

  • Focus on one-on-one interactions. Being an effective servant leader requires knowledge of each team member’s specific needs, expectations, and talents. As such, nurses who wish to be servant leaders should cultivate one-on-one relationships with their team members. One way to do this is to create shift schedules that allow time to partner with each nurse in the unit.
  • Create a culture of compassion. Another important step is creating a culture that’s marked by compassion and empathy. Often this starts with leading by example, both by exhibiting kindness toward team members and by acknowledging team members who do likewise.
  • Allow time for processing. Nursing can be an emotionally taxing profession. A key aspect of servant leadership is allowing team members the time and space they need to process their feelings before regrouping with the team when they are ready.
  • Build a feedback loop. Servant leaders can ensure that the people who work for them see a clear avenue for providing feedback or voicing criticism, whether that’s through an anonymous suggestion box or one-on-one meetings. Servant leaders allow followers to know that they are heard and that their feedback is taken seriously.
  • Offer support. Nurses who wish to be servant leaders can create employee support programs. This might mean mentorship programs for beginning nurses or support groups for nurses who are dealing with burnout or other issues.

These are just a few proactive ways to cultivate servant leadership in nursing.

Strengthening Nursing Through Servant Leadership

The nursing profession requires strong, effective leadership. Ultimately, this is to the benefit of nurses and patients alike. One way for aspiring nurse leaders to hone their skills and gain familiarity with different schools of leadership is to enroll in a formal degree program. Consider Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online Master of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice program. In this program, nurses can cultivate some of the advanced skills that will allow them to assume positions of greater authority and influence. Find out how HPU can help you become a nurse leader today.

Recommended Reading:

How Long Are BSN to DNP Programs?

What Is Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing?

10 Effective Nursing Communication Skills for Nurse Leaders


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Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, What Is Servant Leadership?

Healthcare Management Forum, "Clinical Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Reflections and Lessons Learned"

International Journal of Organizational Analysis, "Servant Leadership, Organizational Identification, Turnover Intention; Empirical Study in Hospitals"

Journal of Nursing Management, "Curbing Nurses’ Burnout During COVID-19: The Roles of Servant Leadership and Psychological Safety"

Journal of Religion and Health, "Servant Leadership and Spirituality Among Undergraduate and Graduate Nursing Students"

Practice Nursing, "Is There a Place for Servant Leadership in Nursing?"

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