I was taught since my school days that a leader is the one in charge and has both the authority and the ability to mobilize followers to achieve collective goals. That definition gave me the impression that becoming a leader makes one special and somewhat better than an average person. Planted in my childish mind was the image of a human pyramid where a leader stands over his followers and seeded in my immature heart was the ambition to become that person on top.
Imagine my perturbation when I became a Christ follower and encountered Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20: 25-28:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Jesus had effectively turned my leadership understanding upside down!
My initial thought that perhaps the servant model of leadership was confined to the religious realm was debunked by a couple of influential books I had read. The classic book was Robert Greenleaf's “Servant Leadership” (Paulist Press, 1991). In this book, Greenleaf declared:
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” The other book that took the carpet from beneath me was Max Depree's “Leadership Is An Art” (DoubleDay, 1987) where Depree's idea of leadership changed my mindset permanently. He said: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
So I began my HCA leadership journey in the kitchen of my predecessor Dr Seet Ai Mee. I was nervous about succeeding her and had asked to meet her with Joan. I had asked her this key question: what do I have to do to succeed as a president? She thought quietly for a while before she responded: Poh Kiang, you have to be humble.
As a result of my conviction and the opportunity to team with like-minded leaders, HCA has determined that a transformed leadership architecture will be part of our strategic plan to prepare HCA to be future-ready. Our Human Resource Management Committee chairperson Rita Chan and our CEO Angeline Wee had laboured to adopt a leadership development model called The Serving Leader from the Newton Institute. The principal trainer Dr John Stahlwert has journeyed with our senior management staff as well as our Council members to help us build a culture that is purpose driven as well as aligned with our mission, vision and values.
In our HCA culture, a leader is not defined by position, title nor pay grade. We aspire to enable each person in her line of work or her performance of function on behalf of HCA to be our representative, our advocate, our leader. Wherever and whenever a member of our HCA community is asked the question: who is the HCA leader? We desire the answer to be: I am. That explains why the Serving Leader model developed by Dr Stahlwert is so crucial to our future. One of the five principles is known as Upending The Pyramid. Simply put, it teaches leaders a foundational truth viz you’re in charge principally to charge up others.
The day is coming - and I suspect is already here - that the big idea of leading has been morphed. He or she who leads is a servant.