Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leadership Through Advocacy: A Form of Servant Leadership?

Seeing as October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it fitting to blog about Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Brinker started the organization in 1982 after her sister, Susan G. Komen, passed away from breast cancer. What began as Brinker’s vision and promise to her sister to help educate others about breast cancer has now evolved into the “world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all, and energize science to find the cures” (http://ww5.komen.org/default.aspx) (Sashkin, 1989)(Sendjaya, 2002).

As I was researching Brinker, I began to think about her in the context of a servant leader. I believe that Brinker’s emergence as a servant leader resonates with Selznick’s idea that servant leadership is a choice because her desire to serve the community through breast cancer awareness arose as a result of her sister’s death (Selznick, 1975). She was a servant first, founding the organization as a service to her sister, and a leader second as her cause began to grow in popularity (Greenleaf, 1991).
Through innovation and creativity (Race for the Cure, Pink Ribbon Store, Partnerships, etc.), Brinker advocates for the cause by envisioning a cure for breast cancer, empowering others to join the movement towards educating people about breast cancer and finding a cure, and empathizing with those who have encountered the illness in some way or another (Sendjaya, 2002)(Choi, 2006). She exemplifies courage by sharing her sister’s story in hopes to inspire others and authenticity of leadership by approaching her cause from the socialized perspective (Sashkin, 1989)(Burns, 1978).

Brinker is a transformational leader who works to develop her followers and help them grow more autonomous in order to increase the likelihood that they will ultimately become servant leaders themselves (Greenleaf, 1991). Brinker’s charismatic style of leadership also enables her to motivate others to support the cause through donations and/or volunteering their time (Choi, 2006). Brinker’s initial vision has ultimately become a successful, consistent reality, and she is a quintessential fulfillment of Greenleaf’s statement, “I am a leader. Therefore I serve” (Sashkin, 1989)(Greenleaf, 1991).

However, as I began to look more closely at Brinker as a servant leader and how much Susan G. Komen for the Cure has grown as an organization, I started to wonder what exactly measures a servant leader’s success? Sure the organization has been active in educating women about breast cancer awareness and raising money for breast cancer research for some 25+ years, but there is still no cure for breast cancer. Is success measured in terms of the amount of money generated for research or by the number of activists who have joined the cause? Can you actually set criteria to measure the success of servant leadership? Or, is that, in fact, the rub—that servant leadership does not necessarily lead to a particular means end as long as the leader is working to develop his or her followers to likely become servants themselves?


  1. I think you pose some really important questions. I believe that a servant leader must be evaluated in a different way from most of the other types of leaders we have studied. The main reason for this is that the servant leader works for a different reason. Their motivation is not actually leadership, they have a much broader goal in mind for their work. Servant leadership is a much more personal act, meaning it is largely up to the individual to measure their own success, not any outside evaluator.

    With Brinker a large part of her goal was to increase awareness of the disease, something no one could say she has not acheived. But I also think, in this situation, the only way to truly say whether the lack of a cure means failure would be to see what the breast cancer situation was like if no one took any action. The research funded by Brinkers efforts should never be taken for granted.

  2. Alison, this was a compelling blog for me as it touched on a personal topic and addressed key leadership theories. I have a sister and several friends who have thankfully been in remission from breast cancer due to early detection provided by mammograms and subsequent treatment.

    In addition to the leadership theories you posed, I add that Brinker mobilized (Heifitz, 1988) people to deal with the many issues and problems around breast cancer and to make progress toward cures; this showed great leadership.

    The Heifitz leadership notion of values also enters into the equation when we see the efforts by Brinkman and her followers to promote mammograms for all women, regardless of their ability to pay. Mammograms are proven to be the most effective tool in breast cancer detection and prevention. Brinkman and her followers lead the values fight that says women should be covered by their insurance for yearly mammograms as part of women's wellness. Some insurers have changed policies because of Brinkman's efforts and cover mammograms 100% for women 40 and over. I'd say that is just one metric that proves Brinker's leadership.

  3. Great post, Alison. I have been thinking about your question about how to measure success in an organization like this. Like the other commentors, I agree that Brinker's success isn't measured by finding a cure for breast cancer. I think most would agree that her success can be measured by the number of participants (followers), money raised, and programs created. It can also be measured by the changes she has enacted, such as the policy changes Sarah described. I'm glad that you brought up Nancy Brinker as a leader, because I think many people do not think of there being one main leader behind all of the Susan G. Komen initiatives. This is an example of an organization that has grown so much that it is practically a household name. The leader as the driver of motivation and protector of values could easily be overlooked or not given due credit.

  4. Thank you all for your insightful responses.

    Jayme: I like that you brought up the idea of success and personal evaluation of servant leadership as opposed to measuring success by outside factors. I believe servant leadership is strongly correlated with setting goals and can perhaps be measured by progesseion (or digression) towards these goals. Maybe a good way to look and servant leadership and success would be to frame it in terms of Vroom's Path-Goal theory.

    Sarah: I appreciate your response and am able to empathize with you in regards to breast cancer being a personal topic because I have also known several people who were affected by breast cancer (some survived and others did not). You brought up an excellent point in tying Brinker's ability to mobilize with Heifitz's theory of leadership. I believe her ability to mobilize others in order to make a difference in the breast cancer awareness movement is a strong reinforcement of her classification of a transformational leader.

    Catherine: I agree with you when you say that Brinker's success as the founder of an organization that has grown tremendously and made tremendous strides in raising awareness, changing policies, etc is a sign of successful leadership. I also think your comments make a great connection to our readings for today about the role of a founder in creating and preserving organizational culture.

  5. Today a few of us heard a talk by the head of Deloitte's foundation for chritable giving, and I think she said some things that are applicable to both this post and Mike's post on servant leadership (especially Linda's comment). How do you measure success for goals that are so long term and intangible. Upward progress is good progress - it keeps the money and support coming in to work toward huge and "out there" goals. By its very nature servant leadership has measures there than numbers. Therefore, measures of success are more qualitative. As the Deloitte foundation leader said - a lot of it is having faith that your goals are reachable.


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