The courage of the servant-leader

There are few who have a harder job than a receptionist.

Nobody is more abused than the receptionist, whether that is by customers, staff, or the job itself. If your job is hard, then the receptionist’s job is likely harder. Your receptionist gets the brunt of your mistakes in the form of disgruntled customers; customers will tell your receptionist before they tell you (if at all), and serenity is often absent when they inform your receptionist of your failures. Show me a dispirited pool of receptionists, and I’ll show you a dysfunctional organization.

With that said, perhaps the hardest receptionist position is the one who serves the mentally ill.

The customer (client) is a person who, by definition, is suffering from distorted thinking, mood, and/or behavior. If you think handling an irate customer is tough, try handling a client with mental health problems.

And if that isn’t hard enough, try handling someone with psychosis.

I once knew a receptionist for an outpatient psychiatric department in a community mental health agency. There were a few talented receptionists on the staff, but she stood out. She could handle anything, whether it was a client not taking their medication, a staff member upset about something that happened, or a client who just wanted to talk the ear off of a familiar face. She did all of this while always staying on point with the hundred and one different tasks dumped on her each day. When you had a question, she either had the answer, or knew who did. She would handle the load when receptionists would quit (which happened frequently), and she would handle the load while training new receptionists.


Some appreciated all she did, while others did not. None of that mattered: her performance was for the clients, and many of them loved her. I would always make it a point to introduce new clients to her and extol her virtues. She was a servant-leader, and she excelled at what she did.

What is even more amazing is how little training she received for the job.

There is only so much training a receptionist receives in any organization. A receptionist can be trained in the basics of answering phones, interacting with customers, scheduling appointments, and so on, but that doesn’t mean the receptionist knows the details of your unique service or product. Even if you hire a receptionist from within your industry, that receptionist still has to become acquainted with how your organization does it. The best organizations provide a lot of coaching in this trial-and-error process (which is also why the loss of a good receptionist is a heavy blow to an organization).

How much more so when the clients are psychotic! Even psychiatric professionals struggle with psychotic clients, as psychosis, by its very nature, is a statistical outlier in the human population. No two individuals with psychosis present precisely the same way. Psychosis garbles more than thought and feeling: it garbles communication, understanding, even social norms. For every individual with psychosis who walks through the door, you never know what you are going to get, not even within the same person. Crying, screaming, outbursts, and random conversations with imaginative figures are all combined with depression, anxiety, mania, and so much more.

And if it is hard for professionals to handle such people, how much more so the receptionist with no professional training?

She told me some of the stories from those first years working in that department, about the fear she experienced when a client was in a psychotic state, the frustration when she was not able to do more, and the general anxiety which comes with facing multiple situations everyday with no clear answers. Throughout all of her stories were the themes of willingness, motivated by her love for others, to do whatever needed to be done and learn whatever she needed to learn for the next time.

The word for this is courage.

Courage is not the absence of fear and apprehension: it is the willingness to do the task anyway in spite of fear and apprehension. She may not have known what to do, but doing nothing was not an option either. So, with a deep breath, she would engage with the psychotic individual and do her best to assist them. I think it’s one of the reasons the clients loved her so much. Her courage, combined with her love for these misunderstood and shunned individuals, were often exactly what they needed and wanted in their moment of crisis. Oftentimes, people just need someone who cares, even if they can’t do anything about their problem.

I believe every servant-leader needs a dose of courage in their character. People are often second to profits, which means there are fewer blueprints for helping people than there are for extracting money from them. For servant-leaders, people always come first, which means serving others even when there is no available blueprint for doing so. This process is part of the formation of the servant-leader, as competency is gained in no other way. If the environment is not supportive of servant-leaders, then an extra dose of courage is needed. It takes courage to make mistakes, and this is especially true for the path of servant-leadership.

If you are working towards becoming a servant-leader, you will experience fear from time to time. Take heart and be courageous: it’s all a part of your training.

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