Think about your last experience with your physical therapist (PT). Some of you are remembering a compassionate ear that you got to share your story with and feel heard. Some may only remember the encouragement they got to persevere and get a painful joint to move again and would gladly not like to remember it again. What you may not remember or even know is what kind of leader your PT was. Were they a top-down leader more comfortable at giving instructions than asking questions? Did they lead with humility and admit when they did not know something but would find out the answer and get back to you? What may surprise you is that health care providers, including PTs, go through extensive training to show care and compassion for people but their leadership styles can vary. Some may be more comfortable with a top-down approach to leading, while some may be more collaborative. There is an emerging style called servant leadership that may have some extra benefit to patients.
The phrase “servant leadership” has become popular in business but has made its way into healthcare more in the past few years. It has been researched heavily over the past few decades, but the concept was first used in 1970 by writer and business leader, Robert Greenleaf. He believed that leaders are most successful when they serve the needs of others more than their own.
“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.”1
– Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership
You’re probably thinking, ‘What does this have to do with my back pain?’ Well, in November 2021, Beth Collier, a researcher from Creighton University, published her dissertation where she got curious whether there was a correlation of leadership styles and patient outcomes, specifically patients with low back pain.2 And what she found out was interesting.
She studied 35 PTs with a survey that measures their behaviors of servant leadership (accountability, authenticity, courage, empowerment, forgiveness, humility, standing back, and stewardship) and compared them to outcomes for low back pain for the patients they treat.3 Providers who self-identified having higher amounts of servant leadership produced better outcomes for their patients compared to their peers who scored lower. In other words, the more the PT was able to treat with their patients’ interests in mind, the better their patients did at managing their back pain.
This is a small sample size but could be the beginning of some important research to help PTs treat patients better, and it may have less to do with the specific treatment provided. We may learn that fostering and developing PTs in clinics with mentorship programs led by servant-leaders may promote the best outcomes for patients. Like any other skills, servant leadership styles can be developed and may be an emphasis for PTs in life-long leadership development.
Next time you work with your PT, pay attention to their style, and consider the impact it has on your pain. You may conclude that it is more about how your PT helps you than what tools they use to treat with.
About Us: What is Servant Leadership? Accessed: May 4th, 2022. https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/
Collier, N. B. (2021). The Influence of Leadership Approach and Follower Self-Identity on Patient Outcomes in Physical Therapy (Doctoral dissertation, Creighton University).
van Dierendonck, D. & and Nuijten, I. (2011). The servant leadership survey: Development and validation of a multidimensional measure. Journal of Business Psychology, 26, 249-267. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-010-9194-1