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How to Serve Others and Still Lead
Alison Flynn Gaffney defines herself as a servant leader. As U of U Health’s Executive Director of Service Lines, Ancillary and Support Services, she brings more than two decades of experience in strategic, operations, and consulting roles at academic medical centers and community hospitals. Here are Alison’s expert tips for effective servant leadership.

definition of leadership is simple: it isn’t about me, it's about everyone else. Early in my career, I looked at what I had achieved—my title, my salary, my book of experience—as the definition of success. Today, when I say, “That was a good day at work," I’m usually thinking about a collective group win or something we accomplished on behalf of the organization. It’s the team outcome that makes me the proudest.

In health care, servant leadership is also about patients. We often get caught up in the data points, not the human points. It's not that data isn't important. It helps to guide us. But it’s the human interaction—the relationship—that helps drive our organization to even greater heights.

Servant leadership isn’t easy

I wasn't always a servant leader. I’ve worked in health care for more than 26 years. About 10 years ago, though, something clicked—it was no longer all about me. Basically, servant leadership is about leading with your heart first. It doesn't mean you let others walk all over you or take advantage of you.

Early in my career, my management style was more aggressive. It sounded like “This is how we should do it” versus a collaborative, thoughtful leadership style where everyone at the table has a voice. There's obviously still a structure; at the end of the day, decisions need to be made. But the hope is that most decisions aren’t made in isolation. Decisions are made through a collaborative team effort.

I’ve realized over the years that people aren’t as responsive to a command-and-control leadership style. Those kinds of organizations can still thrive, but I think that a more matrixed, collaborative organization has a better opportunity for continued growth and excellence. Because of that, servant leadership has become my passion.

I want to promote this way of thinking amongst staff, colleagues, and leadership: how do you manage up, manage sideways, and manage down?

How to put servant leadership into action:

1. Listen with the intent to really listen

As great as my experience might be on paper, operationalizing it in a new organization is challenging. I've spent the last nine months at U of U Health trying to build relationships—to learn and listen. We sometimes listen with the intent to respond, not to really listen. I think that's a mistake, although I am still guilty of it on occasion. In health care, we operate in such a fast-paced environment. But when you really stop to be present—to listen and learn—that's the key to evolution. From my direct reports to my colleagues and superiors, along with our faculty and chairs, it goes a long way when you take the time to meet them one on one and understand their priorities.

2. Temper your inner critic

In our industry, if you keep the patient at the forefront and strive to be a good human, servant leadership finds its way in. It’s our inner voice that can serve as the biggest critic. The conversations you have with yourself can be more damaging than the conversations other people have with you—or that you think they have about you.

It can be paralyzing to get caught up in your own head. You might think that you have to respond in a certain way when, in reality, if you breathe and be present in the moment, you can provide a more thoughtful response. You don’t have to be the one that responds first, the one that fixes the problem, or the one that wins the prize.

3. Contribute to the bigger solution

A lot of times, we act in a more reactive than proactive way. Some of that is because of the industry we work in—you just don't know what you're going to wake up to every morning. The hospital never closes. Creating an environment that supports the people providing patient care requires thoughtful management and insight.

That’s how I view my role today: yes, I’m tasked with strategic finance and data decisions, but I choose to live under the overarching umbrella of, “How am I a part of the solution?” No one person can be the whole solution, of course. Instead, I ask myself, “How can I help to create a great environment where people want to wake up, come to work, and take care of our patients?”

4. Remember to feed your personal life

If your life is all about work, at some point your work will suffer. You have to feed yourself with other things—alone time, volunteer work, friends and family, time with the people that support you—so you continue to be re-energized. As leaders, we sometimes want employees who strive for perfection. But I'm here to tell you that's not sustainable. I've been that employee. I've hired those employees. It doesn't typically work out the way you think it's going to. You have to recognize the importance of cultivating other interests your life.

My philosophy has evolved over the years to where I think of work-life balance as a cliché. I struggled early in my career to try and balance everything. Then I realized that you have to hold yourself, your friends, and your family accountable to figure out that balance. In today’s world, there's so much blending of our personal and professional lives. I believe there’s not a true separation. Downtime doesn't organically exist anymore. Instead, we need to actively create that downtime so we can be the best version of ourselves.

It's like the famous female poet and writer George Eliot said: "It is never too late to be what you might have been." Everyone is a work in progress—we're always redeveloping ourselves.


Alison Flynn Gaffney

Interim Chief Operating Officer, University of Utah Health

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