Servant Leadership in a Public Health Crisis

As my internship with Copenhagen University’s School of Public Health comes to an end, I would like to reflect on the ways that I have witnessed servant leadership manifest itself in my supervisor and others in the department.  In a typical summer, most of the professors in this department take at least one or two months off of work, rarely even checking their emails (Danish people take their vacations VERY seriously).  This summer, however, was definitely not a typical one.  Most people in the department took only a one-week vacation in order to support public health research during this crisis.  They were not given any extra pay for their efforts.  Many epidemiologists, my supervisor included, have taken on additional roles as contact tracers to help limit the spread of COVID-19.  Many of the professors, my supervisor included, also are helping out with local and regional health departments to provide their expertise in biostatistics, epidemiology, infectious disease modeling, public health preparedness, and public health campaigning.  This is all in addition to their normal summer duties, which this year includes preparing for both on-campus and remote classes in the fall, as well as continuing their own non-COVID research projects.

I believe that these examples demonstrate the remarkable way in which servant leadership can be applied to describe the leaders of this organization.  Servant leadership can be defined as a manner in which a leader prioritizes leading simply for the purpose of serving others or a common goal instead of focusing on the organization’s thriving (which often entails profit-making).  These professors enjoy their work to an extreme degree, and many have told me how fulfilling a career in public health research can be.  Their actions during this time of global crisis have further demonstrated how they are not working solely to earn more money or increase their university’s prestige, but they are working for the goal of saving lives and maintaining a healthy population in Denmark and abroad.  I have asked my supervisor about this phenomenon, and she told me that leading for the purpose of serving is commonplace in Denmark.  They have a much more collective society that focuses less on profits and more on fulfillment.  COVID-19 has allowed for servant leadership to become more commonplace in the world, as we are truly united by this disease and many leaders have found this time to focus more on serving.