VHA’s Journey toward Servant Leadership

Belton Photo


Linda W. Belton, FACHE

Director, Organizational Health

VHA National Center for Organization Development


Last spring I made major presentations at the International Servant Leadership Conference in Singapore, and to the Center for Disease Control, highlighting the Veterans Health Administration’s progress in its journey toward Servant Leadership.  They were proud moments.   A month later VA was front and center in the media for denying access to care for thousands of Veterans.  A not-so-proud moment.  I speak to many groups about Servant Leadership in VA and I had to determine whether to continue that (would I be credible?) or go to ground!  I decided to use the situation as a platform to impress the importance of Servant Leadership in creating a work environment that helps prevent and mitigate crisis.

Much of what was published and broadcast about the VA over the next weeks was misrepresented, but the circumstances did force us to look at deficiencies in our processes and our culture, particularly related to service, psychological safety, openness and transparency.

With the appointment of VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Servant Leader characteristics and behaviors have been given a boost.  Having a track record as a Servant Leader himself, the Secretary has signaled his support  for educating VA leaders and potential leaders in this philosophy.

What have we done so far?

  • A four hour interactive training module has been created and will debut at three key leadership development programs this spring.  The training includes didactic content as well as opportunities for participants to practice Servant Leader skills.
  • VHA created and validated a unique 360 degree assessment tool based on James Sipe and Don Frick’s Seven Pillars model of Servant Leadership.  The SL 360 allows participants to assess themselves and invite bosses, peers and direct reports to rate them on their Servant Leader behaviors.  The SL 360 offers a baseline from which aspiring Servant Leaders can measure their progress.
  • An SL 180 will be available to VA employees early in 2015.  The 180 degree assessment is intended for those who do not have staff reporting to them.  One of Robert Greenleaf’s tenets is, “We’re all leaders, all the time.”  The SL 180 allows us to reinforce the premise that everyone in our organization is a leader in some respect, whether or not they hold positional authority.  The SL 180 adapts the behaviors and characteristics of the SL 360 in ways that are meaningful and relevant to employees at any level.

I have never liked the ‘burning platform’ strategy to move  an organization forward, particularly if it is contrived.  In VA’s case, the burning platform was unanticipated and real.  I believe that leaders who may not have embraced Servant Leadership in the past are beginning to see its practical and cultural advantages.  There is always a propitious time for new directions to flourish:  that moment when the planets align and minds synchronize.  I’m hoping that Servant Leadership takes off this year in VA – not only in curricula, measurement, policy, etc, but in hearts.

Sometimes a crisis brings moments of growth and gratitude…

Member, Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership Board of Trustees

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  • Sandra Bailey

    Our veterans need compassion and understanding. As a nurse, I know this is a challenging task. Establishing strong compassionate leaders will promote healing for all, veterans and caregivers.