What is Servant Leadership?
Many people misunderstand what Servant Leadership actually is. Many think it’s strictly a religious thing (its not). Others think it means weakness in the marketplace of ideas (wrong again). Still others think it’s really about letting others lead while you serve (nope).
Servant leadership really involves several things:
- Putting others at the center of your motives.
- Desiring the best for people other than you.
- Offering leadership in order to do better for people other than yourself.
- Serving others, which means, in part, fulfilling the desires of others before you fulfill your own desires.
- A willingness to ignore the status quo in order to serve with excellence.
- Building like-minded partners who have the same objectives.
Servant Leaders tend to be disruptive – but not in a bad way. They’re willing to play within existing norms if those norms are consistent with their objectives. But they have no problem dropping normalcy and taking on positive risk if it furthers the interests of those who are being served.
So what happens when an organization creates a working culture full of Servant Leaders? Quite simply, you then have lots of people serving others in ways that go beyond the expectations of those who are being served.
Feedback Says It All
We have tried to exercise Servant Leadership at Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM) and we’ve largely succeeded at it. How do I know?
I read letters. Lots of letters – from seniors, adult children, staff, and others. It tells me our commitment to Servant Leadership really works. It also tells me that you don’t have to be a non profit organization or a religious institution to apply Servant Leadership to the culture of your business or organization.
Here are some excerpts from a few of the many, many letters we’ve received from residents of our villages as well as their adult children. They reinforce that our mission is about long-term living, not just long-term care:
o Compassion & engagement: Kim Rastigove, about her mom –“The nurses, aides, housekeeping and catering staff were kind, patient, and caring.”
o Inspiration to others: Kristen Flieger, granddaughter of Art & Mabel Hillagas: “My grandparents were there for years and I know they felt comfortable and safe….thank you again for taking the worry away.”
o Respect for residents & family: Marlene, niece of her Aunt Florence: “You are kind & gentle…and treated each resident as an individual, with respect.”
o Partnership & guidance: Collette Livingston, re, her mom Julianna. “In her mind, she was convinced ‘This is the end’. But she was proven wrong...thank you for walking me through the journey of elder parents, their care and comfort, their happiness, and mine as well.”
o Fast action during trouble: Eileen Lubienski & her mom Eleanor who was hemorrhaging - “Not only do I appreciate your very willing assistance, but gentleness and care along with quick thinking and acting”.
o Healthy physical environment:– Rose Lombardo’s daughter: “The cleanliness of her room and surroundings were impeccable.”
Then again, there are other letters from adult children of seniors that shake me to my boots, because they reveal once again the profound need to a sea change in the health care industry serving elders. This one’s about basic concerns like medication:
o Proper Care: Linda Feldt in Westland, re: medication reminders for mom, Dorothy: “…its such a relief that without a doubt that my mother always receives the correct medication & dosage…I did not realize just how fortunate we were until I heard horror stories from two friends of mine who have loved ones at other facilities – one was receiving the wrong medication & dosage. The other came to visit, finding their mother’s medication all over the floor.”
Servant Leadership is all about doing the right thing, regardless of circumstances. When Focus:Hope was looking for a collaboration to build a senior residential village near their Detroit campus, we rolled up our sleeves together and made it work. It was simply the right thing to do.
A lot of people will egg you on to go in other directions, but doing the very next right thing, every day, is what it’s all about. It makes living life so much simpler!
I happen to think that the very next right thing to do is serve the huge, underserved aging Boomer population through walking communities, leisure venues, more housing, and development of positive community experiences.
Rebuilding Community Trust
Because of the negative stereotypes and perceptions of senior living and elder care in Michigan and across the nation, there is often a resistance and suspicion from some communities about those who develop senior residential communities. Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM) fortunately has a tradition as a non-profit organization that puts all of its resources back into customer and family service.
But even with that kind of reputation, trust always has to be proven through action. First, though, there are a whole range of senior residential myths that seem to keep cropping up during planning commission meetings, city council discussions, and other forums. Here’s the short list:
· Low-income seniors will attract crime.
· Senior communities will attract too much traffic and bad drivers.
· There will be a constant stream of ambulances and sirens.
· Senior residential settings are flooded with lights and are visually disruptive.
· Too many “outsiders” will come to visit and cause trouble.
· Negative community economic impact.
· Tax drain on local government.
None of these assertions are true. Once we disprove the myths, PVM invariably has had excellent, strong partnerships with the communities it serves.
Building Real Partnerships
Other communities, however, seek us out because they’re desperate for quality living communities for elders.
The little town of Rosebush, north of Mt. Pleasant, has only one stop sign. But it has 6 nearby churches, with 3 different denominations. And a lot of seniors. They all partnered together to work with PVM in building an assisted living village in their little town. A husband and wife living in Rosebush Manor wrote to me in March of this year. They represent the idea of what a “village” is supposed to be. In this case, many of the residents actually grew up with one another 40, 50, or 60 years earlier – reunited in a fellowship of friendship. Here’s a quote:
"It almost always happens when a new resident comes in: 'That’s Lena, we worked at the Creamery together!; That’s Don, we were in the same high school class!'"
PVM is a faith-based organization, but we are not a religious institution, although we were formed by Presbyterians who wanted to show the care and service for persons of all faith through action. As a result, we have lots of different religious partners. For example, we’ve built 4 different villages in partnership with Lutheran Homes of Michigan.
In fact, when we were struggling to build trust in applying for permission to build a PVM village in the City of Warren, Catholic Cardinal Maida sent a personal note to the Mayor urging the city to allow PVM to serve that community because we hire staff locally, “enhance the beauty of the neighborhoods” and “contribute to the local quality of life.”
When PVM initiates the conversation in a community, we first look at the level of need. The problem is, there’s an under-commitment to quality elder living communities all over the state. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about low income, middle, income or high income residents.
Quality & Reasonable Cost
People often ask "How you can charge low-income seniors rates ranging from $100 (or less) to $600 a month for quality that would typically cost 10 times that much?". The first and primary reasons are simple:
1) Your motive must be pure.
2) You must be uncompromising in the quality outcome desired.
3) You have to have hard-core work ethic.
4) Finally, you need to have a sophisticated understanding about leveraging multiple financial resources to make the outcomes happen.
In PVM’s case, we leverage a mix of government funds, foundation giving and other resources and credits to keep quality extremely high for those with low incomes.
In Detroit, we’ve built 5 villages, with a 6th one to break ground on June 5th. The quality is extremely high, because of the reasons listed above. Is there a waiting list? You bet. Across the US, there are 10 low income seniors standing in line for each residential apartment or unit that becomes available.
But keep this in mind: The basic benchmarks for quality and service are the same in Detroit as they are at our high-income villages like the one in Harbor Springs.
Breaking Down Walls
I think we should break down walls between the cities and towns we’re in - and the villages we build. In Detroit, the larger neighborhoods we’re in have meetings, games, and association gatherings in the community rooms at our villages. In Detroit’s Brush Park Manor Paradise Valley village, there’s some sort of community event taking place almost every night of the week. The same goes for PVM in Holly, Pontiac, Westland, Chesterfield, and others.
The other key to making it all work is engagement with leadership in each locality. We create Community Governing Boards everywhere. In Holly, our board includes the police chief, a City Council member and others who are deeply vested and committed to the residents.
In community just outside Jackson (Blackman Township), a member of the township’s Board of Trustees was so passionate about a critical vote to put a PVM village there, he temporarily checked himself out of the hospital for a heart condition to cast his vote to assure a positive outcome!
People don’t have that kind of commitment without trust. I believe that trust should rarely be talked about – but proven through action. That’s how you create lasting relationships with communities.
Old View vs. PVM’s View
We’re living off of old, tired stereotypes about our aging population – especially about how they live and what they want. Our specialty at Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM) – living environments for elders – is based on stereotype-busting truths.
Allow me to compare the Old View vs. the PVM View of senior residential living:
Old View: Hospital-style living
PVM View: Building communities in non-institutional settings. That’s why we call it Presbyterian Villages. Each has its own Residence Association that makes independent decisions. We have a resident point of view rather than a landlord/tenant point of view. And we have an interactive feedback model to be constantly focused on customer service. We have fitness centers. Interactive computer centers. The stuff you need, to have a community.
Old View: Smelly, acrid, environments
PVM View: Pleasant, walking, working, interactive environments. PVM believes that “Institution” needs to be removed from the senior living and nursing home equation. We’ve started by getting rid of institutional food, cleaning operations, nurse’s aide and recreational services. Instead we have direct care partners who do it all for small groups of customers. They build relationships, lasting friendships, and most important, they put the elder at the center of the environment. Medical service comes in just like any visiting doctor or nurse would in making house calls.
Old View: Outrageous cost for poor quality
PVM View: High-level benchmarked quality regardless of income level. One of our managers told me the story about a man who came into the lobby of PVM’s Clinton Township village, which provides housing for low income seniors. The man walked in, looked around, and walked quickly out of the building. The manager followed the man into the parking lot and asked what he needed. The man apologized. He said he was looking for a residence for his older mother who has a very low fixed income. He explained that there’s obviously no way his mother could afford to stay at a residential village of the kind of quality we have. Of course, we told him he was wrong.
And that’s part of the problem. When it comes to quality for seniors, we’re conditioned to believe "If it looks too good, it must not be for me."
Old View: Under-trained, neglectful or abusive staff
PVM View: Heavily screened, compassionate mission-driven work force. I’ll never forget the time I was talking to one of our residential staff. She really loves the service partnership she has with residents of one of the PVM villages she works at. But she was a little down in the mouth because, she explained, often when friends and acquaintances ask her what she does, and she explains she helps seniors in a residential environment, they ask her, "How can you do that?", as if she’s a participant in abuse!
The point is this: the expectation "bar" is ridiculously low when it comes to serving the elder population. Not only should expectations and demands be far higher – but the economics should (and do, at PVM) align with top-flight service, regardless of income. Unfortunately, some in the senior living field exploit the low expectations of elders as well as adult children of elders. PVM’s view is that all customers should demand excellence, regardless of income.
Old View: Isolated, depressed residents
PVM View: Building vibrant, creative relationship communities. PVM is a national leader in the development of so-called "Green Houses®" for seniors. A small group of seniors live in a large, spacious house. Each has private living and sleeping quarters, but there is a large living room and dining room, recreational facilities, gardens, and other anti-institutional amenities. A beautiful, fully equipped kitchen (NOT a cafeteria) is where custom meals are prepared every day. All meals are developed by residents in partnership with a very special PVM “servant leader”. That person takes care of cooking, cleaning and housekeeping chores. But the PVM "servant leader" does more than that. He or she is invested in the human relationships at each Green House®, and helps with continuing education, resident/family satisfaction, workforce development, etc.
Old View: Low-tech, with seniors baffled by technology.
PVM View: Technology applied for better care; better communication. Research shows an openness and interest among elders in dealing with technology. So the appetite is there. The problem is that many service organizations think they need to "dumb it down" to have any direct technical interaction with their older customers. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, PVM created a high-technology, highly efficient "Livable Lifestyle" home in Traverse City, Michigan, in partnership with AARP. The overall design of the home was extremely safe, designed for mobility-challenged people, and using extraordinary technology to enhance safety, health monitoring, and energy efficiency.
Old View: Institutional warehousing mentality
PVM View: Continuous, active residential learning for the long-term future. According to the AARP, 80% of Boomers say hey plan to work at least part-time during their retirement. All of our goals need to be focused on feeding the aspirational needs of our customers, not to "manage" a population of people.
That’s where the paradigm shift needs to be among leadership, development organizations, and capitalists. It’s not about exploitation. It’s about Servant Leadership – and that can happen whether you’re a profit making firm or a not for profit organization like PVM.
We’re Ignoring Michigan’s Economic Powerhouse
It’s easy to look at Michigan’s economic woes and start thrashing around for interesting, sexy fixes. Many fixes, in fact, are valid and important - areas that need to be shored up: engaging creative college graduates to stay here; building alternative industries in the life sciences, alternative energy and other fields; encouraging entrepreneurship through venture capital and other funds.
That’s all good and important. But we are blind – even willfully ignorant in some cases – about the untapped economic juggernaut we have in Michigan already. It’s a population that represents a core of capital and creativity that, if left underserved, will result in the loss of the biggest potential for short and long-term economic growth this state has seen in 30 years.
It’s all about aging Boomers. The 60+ crowd. They represent the only population in the Detroit region that will be growing for the next 25 years. Every other population segment will shrink. It’s true. Ask SEMCOG – they did the study.
I know what you’re thinking. People over 60 have one foot out the door. They’re wrapping things up. They’re poor. They don’t spend money. They’re a drain on the state & local economy. They hate technology. And they’ve had it with work.
Not one of those things is true. Just look at the facts:
They have one foot out the door? Seniors vote more frequently than anyone else. They’re more engaged and aware of public policy issues and challenges. Thus, they’re more influential than any other demographic.
They’re poor? Poverty in the US is 12.7% of the population. However, estimates for senior poverty in Michigan are as low as 8%, including Social Security income.
They don’t spend money? People 50+ own 77% of all the assets in the United States. They purchase 43% of all cars. They eat out an average of 3 times a week. They account for 90% of all leisure travel. And they have more disposable income than any other group.
They’re a drain on the state & local economy? Virtually all have health care coverage. Very few have children of school age, so they don't dilute local and state resources dedicated for education. They rarely go to prison – one of the biggest tax burdens for any state. And they cause less property damage than other younger people.
They hate technology? According to a recent study, 70% of Americans 65+ like the idea of using personal computers to be connected to the world around them.
They’ve had it with work? As lifespan grows for men and women, surveys show that aging Boomers have no intention of hanging it up, intellectually or physically. They want to create. They want to be change agents. They want to be involved philanthropically. They expect to be working, creating and contributing into their 80’s. Consultant and author Marc Freedman recently chaired a conference on the so-called “Encore Economy”. He says tens of millions of seniors want Encore Careers.
Forgotten Economic Powerhouse
Yet despite this commanding data, the aging population is largely forgotten by leadership, economic planners and capitalists in the state of Michigan. I have not seen a single strategic planning initiative statewide or regionally surrounding this cash-rich, ready-made population in Michigan.
According to a recent out-immigration study, Michigan loses more seniors each year in all but 4 states. We’re losing $1.3 billion dollars per year from the state economy due to seniors leaving. We need to do much more to keep them here.
But here’s the good news: there is a huge economic development opportunity to serve the aging Boomer population in Michigan. But it’s largely untapped. The organization that I serve, for example – Presbyterian Villages of Michigan (PVM) - has nearly $200 million dollars in bricks and mortar construction in the planning pipeline over the next 5 years to serve this demanding and important population.
We create residential villages with an emphasis on building community relationships among older residents. Some Villages include multiple buildings and other amenities on a large campus (our largest being 90 acres). Others are multistory on smaller sites - but they operate like the villages, nonetheless.
My goal is to make sure that leadership, developers, retail establishments, health care systems, and leisure service organizations understand the opportunity that is staring them in the face.
Michigan’s success depends on it.