Why Great Leadership Matters in Healthcare
We see lots of things written about leadership, which usually includes seductive titles like ‘The Ten Tips to Leadership Success’ or ‘The Secrets of Leaders Who Have Made It’ and so on. While the ideas written about can indeed be useful, they can also be trite – and frankly – unhelpful in facing the real and present challenges of leadership.
While I work with leaders across different industries – and the challenges are all tough in their own way – being a leader in healthcare must surely be one of the toughest. Why you ask? While many leaders could similarly stake a claim on the points I’m about to mention, it is my experience in working in the healthcare sector for nearly ten years that they are usually amplified in healthcare when compared to most other organisations.
The challenges usually revolve around three areas:
- Doing more with less;
- Balance quality of care outcomes for patients (aka customers) with the realities of managing a business; and
- Navigating the transition from primarily being a clinician (aka technical expert) to primarily being a leader.
The model below depicts three key areas I see as important in being able to exercise great leadership in healthcare (in fact any organisational setting).
Vision is not about having a narrative that brings people to tears, but it is about being able to move people in the direction the organization needs them to go. In healthcare, like in so many other sectors I work in, the ‘burning platform’ is an overused metaphor. What happens when the burning platform is barely warm? Or even cold? Does that mean we don’t have to innovate any more? A fear-based approach has only a limited lifespan. Having a burning ambition is at least equally important.
Passion to me means caring about something so much that it energises and motivates me beyond the ordinary. What do you really care about? What do you love talking about to others? And when you do talk about it you feel uplifted and energized? Passion and enthusiasm are contagious – just as much as doom and gloom are on the converse side. It’s about being cautiously optimistic – perhaps even being bit of a Pollyanna? (the name derives from the 1913 novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter describing a girl who plays the “glad game” – trying to find something to be glad about in every situation) without losing touch with reality.
I have a confession to make. I love the word courage. For me it signifies so much yet is demonstrated so little in modern organisational life. The Merrium-Webster encyclopedia says it is from the middle English term ‘corage’, or ‘coer’ – heart. Leadership is not a popularity contest. My view of leadership is that at its core is disruption – moving people from one place (the status quo) to a more desirable place (the aspiration).
When all three elements are present, the metaphor of a locomotive seems to be apt. A locomotive knows where it’s going (vision), it has the energy to sustain the journey (passion) and it has a certain conviction about how it goes about things (courage). I’m not suggesting of course that we aggressively ‘railroad’ anyone who gets in our way, just that we could benefit from taking on the positive traits as described.
When Some Elements are Missing
When all elements are not present (Vision, Passion and Courage) then the results can be compromised.
- Steam Train: While vision and courage are great qualities, they are not enough. We also need Passion – something we care about enough that can sustain us throughout the toils of leadership. If passion is not present, we literally ‘run out of stream’.
- Roller Coaster: This is what it feels like when there is lots of energy (passion) and conviction (courage) but a vision is lacking. For what purpose are we in this market? Why are we restructuring…again? Are we clear where the organization should be in five years? While it can be a fun ride, it can ultimately just be that – a ride with no destination in mind.
- Easily Derailed: We can be distracted, disrupted or even worse ‘taken out’ by a system (i.e. team, department, organization) that isn’t ready to change. We have lots of power and we know where we want to go, but lack the courage and resilience to stay the course. It’s like the train tracks are warped and we lose our confidence – or even worse – become impotent in being able to create meaningful and lasting change.
So, I invite each of us to consider our own leadership and where we each are strong and where we each need to focus our development efforts. Leaders today, particularly those who work in our hospitals and in the healthcare sector generally, need to be able demonstrate vision, passion and courage for the sake of patients, staff and the community.
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