Susan Gilster’s high school counselor meant well when he told her, “You can be three things—a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.” It was typical advice in the early 1970s for a young woman in a small, Midwestern town trying to find her way in the world.
“I really wanted to study mathematics, but I believed him for some reason,” Gilster says. “And nursing was the area I had the most interest in.”
So she pursued it. But white shoes and a nursing pin just weren’t enough. After working at the Cleveland Clinic, Institute de Clinica in Venezuela and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, she enrolled at Xavier to earn her bachelor’s degree in general studies. What she got, though, was knowledge that transcended a single job title.
“I got a wider introduction into ethics, management and leadership,” she says.
Call it determination or a friendly jab at her high school counselor, Gilster went on to earn her PhD, focusing her dissertation on creating a leadership model for health care. With that, she set off on a professional path that has been self-exploratory and trailblazing.
In 1986, she co-founded and served as executive director of the Alois Alzheimer Center in Cincinnati, the first specialized facility dedicated to the care, treatment and study of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States.
“When we started the center, we’d go and talk to people and they didn’t even know what the disease process was,” she says. “Everybody thought it was just people getting old. The change between how it’s treated then and now is just phenomenal.”
Most recently, she founded The Gilster Group, a multidisciplinary collaboration of experts in memory loss and dementia providing education, training and consulting to health care providers. Now she’s the one being sought out for advice.
Some lead by example, others shift paradigms. So if the notion of health care and leadership seem contradictory, Gilster suggests redefining one’s definition of what a leader really is. “I was intrigued with leadership styles, primarily servant leadership. I believe that health care and nursing, plus a lot of who I am and what I’ve done, is about serving other people.”
She also believes that a true leader sometimes follows—and that includes following their heart. “Being a true leader is really about serving everyone.”