Being a leader is rarely easy. And being a leader in health care these days can be particularly challenging.
After three decades in this field, however — including years as a CEO and board member — I’ve learned that certain things hold true, no matter what the environment is like. For example, leadership is not about authority; it’s about influence. It’s about how you guide and inspire others to achieve an aim.
Often people new to leadership — especially in their first management position — confuse the tools and aspects of management with leadership. Managers oversee budgets, supervise staff, collect data, and solve problems, usually with a team of people. Their effectiveness as managers is highly dependent on the leadership skills and the behaviors they practice, not just their technical, clinical, or procedural knowledge.
You can manage assets, but you have to lead people.
I was really lucky early in my career. When I was in my mid-20s, my first job out of graduate school was working for a hospital management company. Shortly after I started, I was sent up to be the interim administrator of a small hospital north near Waco, Texas.
Nervous but eager about the assignment I asked my boss and mentor, “What do you want me to do?” He said, “I don’t want you to do anything. If something needs to be done, you’ll see it.” “What I really want you to do,” he continued, “is talk to people. Talk to the patients. Go talk to the doctors. Spend your time talking to the board. Spend time talking to the employees. Understand what they’re doing. Understand what they’re up against.”
So I went and spent a couple months as the interim administrator with no agenda. I followed my mentor’s advice and spent my time out of the office interacting with everyone, observing and asking questions. That experience helped to shape an important leadership behavior that I’ve consistently practiced ever since: get close to the work.
To develop an authentic presence as a leader and to become an effective manager, you have to understand what your department does and how it does it. You need to know what’s going on and the challenges that people face in doing their work — even if it is clinical work and you do not have a clinical background.
That’s the foundation: Learn about the teams and teamwork, and how best to support and develop them. That’s what creates authenticity — when you know what the work’s about and your team knows that you are invested in their success.
Michael D. Pugh, MPH, President, MdP Associates, is faculty for the High-Impact Leadership IHI Quick Course.
You may also be interested in:
IHI white paper - High-Impact Leadership: Improve Care, Improve the Health of Populations, and Reduce Costs
High-Impact Leadership Behaviors: Five Things Leaders Can Do to Promote Improvement