Innovation Through Servant Leadership and Courage

4 years ago
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There’s a saying that you can’t do today’s job with yesterday’s methods, and still be in business tomorrow. Late last year I attended an Australian Institute of Company Directors forum and two key takeaway messages were:
1) Directors must model and work to nurture a culture that supports the organisation’s purpose and strategy.
2) Directors should consider including updates on innovation as a standing agenda item at Board meetings.

At the end of the key note address, a panel of experienced Directors addressed questions, and reminded the audience to never underestimate how much employees pay attention to the work of the Board, and the decisions Directors make about who they appoint as CEO, and how they support role.

Leadership is key to a healthy culture, and culture is very little about what we say, but very much about what we do. Including updates on innovation as a standing Board meeting agenda item is a leadership action Directors can take to clearly signal to staff that the Board is committed to the pursuit of innovation and that its a key practice that defines the organisation’s culture.

Servant Leadership  

I’m a strong advocate of a leadership style known as Servant Leadership; a style I believe is most suitable for Aged Care and Retirement Living leaders looking to support innovation, drive organisational growth and sustain a healthy, values aligned culture.

Writer and philosopher Larry C Spears distilled Servant Leadership into ten traits: listening, empathy, stewardship, foresight, persuasion, conceptualization, awareness, healing, commitment to the growth and development of people, and building community.  

Whilst each trait is important and valuable the traits of listening, conceptualisation and commitment to the growth, and development of people hold the key to nurturing innovation. As leaders we should ask ourselves: do we create and support an environment where team members feel empowered to think innovatively, and when presented with innovative ideas, do we dedicate enough time listening to these ideas, supportively questioning, and conceptualising their true value?

Managing risk is clearly important. Leading team members through sprints to review and mitigate risks, and to set clear parameters within which team members know they are encouraged and supported to incubate and progress innovative ideas, is a great way to support the innovation journey, and manage risk.

It may be worth reviewing your risk appetite statements. Do your statements support the incubation and progression of innovation, or do they send a signal to your teams that they need to be overly cautious and in turn create unwarranted fear and  hesitation?


Leaders of successful, innovative organisations have an 11th servant leadership trait—courage. Their team members know that it’s OK to test iteratively, and if they fail, to learn from this experience. Their team members know that progress and iteration is more important than waiting for perfection.

I’m not sure if there’s been another time in the history of aged care in Australia where the head winds have been as strong as they are today. Even before COVID19, many in the industry have said to me that the winds are bordering on cyclonic. Governments will need to continue playing a key role as the sector charts a course to a quality, consumer focused, and financially sustainable future. However, as we weather through the present pandemic, it is a moot point that business-as-usual as we knew it, will not be returning.

In times of great challenge acting early, and exploring ways to navigate around the head winds significantly increases the chances of survival beyond battening down the hatches and blindly staying the course. Look to re-purpose some of your organisation’s financial and human capital to, reach out for support to develop new ways of thinking, truly empower teams, sprint to review and manage risk, and embrace the business process changes that will inevitably be required.

Today, more than ever, acting before the crowd and supporting innovation might just be the most important investment decision your organisation ever makes.

Be courageous; successful innovation does not happen without courageous leadership.   

Peter Sydes is Commercial Director at Pluss Communities (innovAGEING Gold Partner).
He is also innovAGEING Expert-in-Residence for Human Services Leadership.