Healthcare leaders must realize the source of authentic service


Much has been studied and written in the past few years about the high levels of burnout and moral injury among healthcare staff. The unfortunate reality threatens our ability to attract, train and retain the number of workers and caliber of talent needed to care for our communities and build our future.

Healthcare, rightly so, is often held up as a paragon of service. There is no disputing the value of selflessness as a leadership trait. The hard work done every day is often for the sake of others—our colleagues, patients and communities—for the greater good. I have done my best to model altruism while encouraging those on my teams, across the organizations for which I’ve worked and within our field to do the same.

At the same time, we must remember the opportunity that comes from reaching inside ourselves to connect with our own goals. The American College of Healthcare Executives advocates leading through example and mentoring, and recognizing that caring for others is the cornerstone of our professional interactions. 

As I’ve matured as a leader, however, I’m increasingly aware that we cannot lead by example without being intimately in tune with what moves us. For example, in efforts to reduce health disparities and improve patient experience, I am proud of the work that is good for my patients, team and organization. But in truth, I am also energized by the ties to my own sense of meaning. By tapping into that feeling, I find the reservoirs needed to do the critical work before us.

A purpose-activated mindset can be important for addressing and lessening the burnout so prevalent in healthcare today. ACHE recently conducted a survey examining burnout and other stress-related symptoms among healthcare leaders, and the findings are troubling: Nearly one-third of respondents had burnout scores in the above-average range. As part of the survey, respondents were asked, “What advice would you give to a colleague in a similar position about recognizing and addressing job stressors?” Prioritizing self-care and finding meaning in work were among the top choices.

However, we don’t need a survey to remind us that even before the pandemic, we relentlessly emphasized selfless drivers of service—as if acknowledging self-fulfilling motivators were taboo. As I begin my term as ACHE chair, I am aware that we as leaders have downplayed the importance of connecting to our own power sources. 

Now, as we emerge from the past few years, many of our colleagues are suffering higher levels of emptiness and unfulfillment than they were before the pandemic. One solution to this challenge will be for leaders to help their teams embrace both the selfless and the internal motivations for serving in healthcare. Both have resonance. By encouraging people to embrace the two, we can cultivate the type of self-awareness and wholeness that comes with a truer appreciation for how this kind of service benefits the individual and the collective.

Taking time to re-center ourselves and reflecting on our goals as a healthcare leader looks different for everyone. The key is understanding what drives each of us. Atrium Health Navicent’s “Connect to Purpose” is an initiative in which the organization shares patient stories or stories of team members who have gone above and beyond. These stories are used to underscore our cultural commitment and demonstrate how we live our values. Remembering our purpose, and maybe even recommitting to it, can become the oxygen that fuels what we do every day.

The cumulative effects of the past few years cannot be understated. Rediscovering our own missions can build the momentum urgently needed to advance health for all. By embracing our true selves, we can also help our colleagues and teams flourish through the collective and individual experiences of service while being energized by the discovery of their “why.” 

Leonardo da Vinci is said to have written, “Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.” Leaders who develop the awareness of what motivates them will be much more capable of fostering an environment that makes it conducive for their teammates to do the same. The sooner and more genuinely we do this, the greater the chance we’ll have to build sustainable levels of joy and wholeness in service to our profession. 


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