We were sitting in pre-op that early morning at the hospital, a regional teaching center, waiting for the anesthesiologist to come. The room was full of patients quietly waiting and talking. Our youngest son was going to have minor surgery, and we had decided that I would be with him in the surgery room until he was asleep. So, wearing a gown and mask, I waited with my wife and our young son.
Into the pre-op room came an entourage: doctors, anesthesiologists, and their students ready to begin the morning. One by one they visited each bed in the room. But no one came over to us. At first, I was a bit worried. Finally, an older gentleman came into the room. White-haired and slightly bent, he had a noticeable tremor in his hands as he carried a tray of small plastic cups straight over to us.
"Would you like some soda before breakfast?" he asked our young son. Little did he know that in this four-year-old boy's household, soda wasn't necessarily the drink of choice. Therefore, he didn't fully understand the appeal of "pop before breakfast" and declined.
"Too bad," said the doctor, as he reached over and downed the first cup. "How about you, Dad? Want some pop for breakfast?" I looked at him, knowing that one of the cups had the preoperative sedative; but I wasn't sure which one. And playing Russian roulette with soda was not my favorite thing to do at 6:45 a.m.!
He smiled, offered one to my wife and took another for himself. There was only one cup left. He turned to our son and said, "Join us, won't you?" At that point, he picked up the last cup. We all lifted up our cups together, said "bottoms up," and downed them. "See you in a bit," he commented, as our son slowly settled down, ready now for surgery.
Soon, I was carrying our now drowsy son in my arms down the hallway to surgery. When we entered ‚ surgical trays were being set up. Doctors, residents, and nurses were all going about their tasks. Then, in walked the older anesthesiologist with a couple of students. He greeted us and picked up the mask that would go over our son's face.
I remembered that mask from when I had my tonsils out as a very young boy. When it was placed over my mouth, I remember feeling as if I was suffocating before I lost consciousness. During our pre-surgery orientation, the resident had warned us that it was not uncommon for children to fight and flail while the mask was being put on.
This older gentleman simply held the mask above our son's head and talked to him about preschool and soccer. Occasionally, he would call out a number to his assistant who was running the controls. Slowly, our son slipped over the edge.
Once he was unconscious, the anesthesiologist gently slipped the mask on, turned to me and said, "He's ready. You can go now. " Suddenly, I realized that the entire surgical suite was quiet. All of the nurses and residents had watched him interact with our son in this peaceful way. Once the mask was on, the hustle and bustle of surgery started up again, and I went back down the hall to pre-op to meet my wife and begin our waiting.
A couple of hours later, we were in the post-surgery suite, as our son came to. With monitors beeping quietly and nurses attending to him, the anesthesiologist returned to check on his patient. I thanked him for his kindness. Then, before leaving, he turned and said, "When I was a younger doctor, I would typically just put the mask on and get the ball rolling. But since I became a grandfather, every child looks like my grandson. I can't work in that manner any more. Kindness and compassion are vital to this service." Through this experience, I realized what a difference this grandfather's "commitment to service" had made in the lives of our own family.
Our commitment to those we serve is vital to our success. When transforming a challenge into an achievement, we must realize that there is a fundamental difference between helping customers or employees, and serving them. "Helping" is based on inequality. We are aware of our own strengths, opinions, and options, as well as what we think needs to be done. Often, those who are "being helped" can feel diminished in the process.
On the other hand, service and servant leadership involve a relationship between equals; the feeling is one of mutual exchange. The difference is in the commitment. Many organizations say they are committed to the customer but truly do not care for them. These organizations will repeat whatever they are currently doing, until time stops and the world ceases to turn. Unfortunately, their commitment is really to themselves.
Other corporations will attempt to listen and respond to the articulated needs, wants, and desires of the customers, but paralyze themselves with policy-and-procedure manuals that are three feet thick. The result is frustration, made even worse through limited feedback. The staff members of these corporations are attempting to leap tall buildings in a single bound with concrete shoes!
Yet, many leaders create organizational cultures where a commitment to customers and to one another carries an ethic of true service. These organizations guide and lead their customers to services and products they had not even envisioned, and they do it in a manner whereby both experience satisfaction and mutual respect.
The doctor who cared for my son was just such a person. While proficiently attending to the medical details of preparing a child for surgery, he was simultaneously aware of the psychological aspects of how to serve the child, so that the experience would not be a traumatic one for the child -- or for the parents.
The ultimate question of service is simple: Am I acting to fulfill my own needs, or am I acting to serve others? The greatest action we can take is to serve another in a respectful and healthy manner. At that moment, we live our commitments. As Calvin Coolidge noted, "No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave."