Servant Leadership

Servant Leader




Leonard Zwelling


“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.” Cornel West

“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people. The only way to know the people is to spend time among the people. You cannot serve me if you cannot see me.” Newly re-elected Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA)

      There’s a little bit of plagiarism here from the newly re-elected senator, but his point, and West’s, cannot be more germane. In a world where competent leadership is hard to find, turning to the idea that your role as a leader is to serve the people you lead is an often heard, but rarely heeded concept.

      There is much written about the servant leader and even more is espoused on the subject, but there are very few who embody it. A servant leader has to put her own self-interest at a lower priority than the well-being of those she leads. This requires vision and will, as well as the most important aspects of managing—mentoring and resourcing.

      Let me give you three examples using people who led me.

      The first was my first boss at MD Anderson, Irv Krakoff. His job was to re-work the Division of Cancer Medicine (then just the Division of Medicine) into a place of excellent clinical and laboratory research after the era of the non-randomized trial and the shoot from the hip reign of J. Freireich. This is not to say that Dr. Freireich was not a genius. He was, but while he was inspirational, he tended to forget that those he led were not geniuses and therefore did not have his vision or superior intellectual power and J. Freireich served no other faculty. Dr. Freireich trained a lot of very good oncologists and even some excellent experimentalists, but his ways had fallen out of fashion in 1983 and MD Anderson needed a new direction. That direction was Dr. Krakoff’s job and I cannot think of a better example of a servant leader.

All Irv wanted of me as a new recruit was to succeed and he did everything he could to assist me in that. I will be forever grateful for his leadership and mentorship throughout my first nine years at Anderson. Without his encouragement (and that of his wife Rosemary Mackey), I would never have been bold enough to get my MBA while running my lab. Dr. Krakoff was a true servant leader.

      Dave Hohn was Vice President for Patient Care when he designated me to oversee the infrastructure for clinical research in 1995 after staffing his office for the two years after my graduation from business school. I have no idea why he thought I could do it. I certainly had no prior skill that would suggest I was capable, but he did everything in his power to help me succeed. I think I did and so did the institution which eventually asked me to oversee the entire research infrastructure. It would not have happened without David putting my success above his own. Again, I am very grateful.

      Finally, Margaret Kripke also was a master of servant leadership again seeing her success in the success of those she led. She was the best at disciplining me when I needed it or advising me of a different course than the one I had planned. Even to this day, I would trust her insight in matters academic, political, or both.

      These were three very wise people.

      But as Mr. Warnock said, you can’t serve what you can’t see. Krakoff, Hohn, and Kripke were all clear-eyed about seeing their faculty including me. I am very concerned that the current leadership of MD Anderson does not see with the eyes of a faculty member despite the current president’s having been one. He seems removed from the everyday problems of the clinicians and certainly those of the research faculty, both clinical and basic.

I will add to Mr. Warnock’s addition to Dr. West’s. You cannot know what you cannot see and you cannot see with the eyes of another until you have walked in her shoes.

      Dr. Pisters, get out from behind your zoom calls and endless reiterative feel-good meetings and get into the clinics and labs. I know you haven’t been there for if you had been there would be new carpeting by now in the LeMaistre Clinic and a far greater emphasis on basic science.

      Leadership is a tricky challenge. Most who take leadership roles become so entranced with their inherent power that they forget themselves and their real purpose. Service.

      There’s a real dearth of servant leadership in the world right now. It seems every day we hear about another political leader wishing to turn his country into an autocracy with him calling the shots for everyone.

      It can happen in academia as well. I just cannot envision where Dr. Pisters is taking MD Anderson, but I do know he is not serving anyone but himself and that’s not leadership at all.


2 thoughts on “Servant Leadership”

  1. You can’t lead if you don’t love…. you can’t save if you don’t serve.
    There is no love for the faculty as evidenced by castrating the Senate and the Bait-n-Switch moves around PRS & Medical Bylaws…. not to mention the new content therein.
    Is there even any recognition that there needs to be a degree of “saving”? I think there is a perception that faculty are petty and spoiled; they/we are treated as such…not even a dining hall. And in some buildings, there is zero nutrition after 2pm aside from a vending machine.
    The concept of leaders serving their people is a falsehood here when looking to the highest levels of leaders. MDACC is great at buzzwords….. transparency….EQ…..servant leadership, but when the rubber meets the road, there is secrecy, manipulations, retaliation, targeting, and marginalization.
    It’s hard to serve your people from Telluride or Boston or California. I am willing to wage not a single member of the ELT walked the halls during the pandemic, or since, to say thank you. For certainly if (s)he had, it would have been a great photo-op and we would see it plastered for the BOR to appreciate.

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