Learning leadership in the 21st century
Two motivated healthcare professionals are working together to solve major challenges in the ways their communities receive care. They have substantially different personal and professional profiles. One is a published author and established patient advocate focused on improving access, understanding and options for the treatment of psychological patients and lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The other is upgrading her hospital’s electronic medical records in order to increase provider efficiency and reduce medical errors. Her hospital is located in transcontinental Eurasia and her healthcare environment is challenged by cost, quality, and access like many other health systems globally.
While they come from different backgrounds, these two professionals have in common bold aspirations about how they can personally lead transformational change in the healthcare systems they serve. By sharing insights and lessons learned, even lessons from a different sector of the healthcare industry across the globe, each walks away a better leader, more confident and better equipped to solve the challenges of home.
As assistant dean of Healthcare Programs in the Brown University School of Professional Studies, I watch these kinds of transformational relationships develop each year, and I’ve seen reinforced time and again the importance of strong, collaborative leadership in reforming our healthcare system. Through our Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership (EMHL) degree program, we recruit healthcare professionals from vastly different backgrounds to come together, break down silos and study what it means to be a leader in healthcare.
In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to define obscenity and declared, “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” As a personal and professional quality, leadership can be defined similarly. Organizations and groups typically recognize leadership when they see it, and they identify leaders in their midst by observing how many of their subordinates and peers follow the lead of an individual on projects, initiatives or interpersonally.
Clearly, successful leaders have innate qualities and characteristics that give them a platform to connect interpersonally with groups of people. These groups, which provide the leader with followers, know that their chosen leader has intelligence, empathy, charisma or other personality traits that make the leader an attractive choice with whom to align. Interpersonal qualities are what make individuals popular, but a charismatic person without leadership skills will be ultimately ineffective, albeit popular.
Leadership competencies are the technical applications that good leaders should reinforce as their leadership transcends from the interpersonal to the professional spheres. There is a vast panel of leadership competencies from which to select, but at a minimum, good leaders need to be taught to:
- Be consciously aware of the value of emotional intelligence
- Focus on their success in communicating a clear vision
- Be receptive to feedback and constructive criticism and encourage two-way communication with all stakeholders
- Encourage creativity and promote sound decision-making free of bias, predetermination or misleading “group think”
- Maintain adaptability, particularly in a dynamic sector like healthcare
These competencies frequently overlap with innate interpersonal characteristics, but it is vital to emphasize that these skills can be taught and learned by nearly any individual who has leadership aspirations. Most importantly, they need to be consciously practiced, refined and updated, because as valuable assets, they run the risk of atrophy if left ignored over a period of time.
The lifelong application of leadership competencies is not likely to happen without a dedicated and disciplined effort. Successful students of leadership realize that they need at least these elements as part of their approach:
- Formally identify the need to focus on leadership skills as a priority
- Establish a framework for identifying a would-be leader’s existing strengths and opportunities for improvement
- Create an environment where the leader provides and receives feedback from multiple viewpoints (internal and external, superiors and subordinates, qualitative and quantitative, etc.)
- Perform periodic structured reviews or assessments of performance within the context of the goals of the original framework established
Leadership competencies are characteristics or attributes that define who good leaders should be. Once the competencies are identified, the good leader follows an ongoing process of measurement and review that reveals how they are being applied. Without the benefit of review and refinement, leaders are likely to miss opportunities to maximize their own strengths for the benefit of the teams they lead.
Our two transformational healthcare leaders referenced above pursued their leadership education from very different perspectives. The patient advocate from the Pacific Northwest is mission-driven and seeks to fundamentally improve the awareness of a health issue that plagues millions of patients who go frequently go untreated or undertreated. The hospital executive is also mission-driven to improve her institution’s quality of care, but she is focused on a fundamental organizational transformation that can be measured in terms of efficiency, error rates and turnaround times. They come from different backgrounds and are applying their leadership skills in very different settings, but their aspirations to effect change provide an enormous common ground between them.
The healthcare sector will continue to develop innovative solutions to the cost, quality and access issues that too frequently plague the noble pursuit of healing our communities. Specific cures for healthcare’s systemic ills may not yet be fully known, but it is a certainty that they will require focused, dedicated and consistent leadership. That leadership frequently depends on personal characteristics, but can only be maximized to its full effect with a strategic focus on how to establish it and implement it in quantifiable ways. And in today’s ever-more connected healthcare landscape, this strategic focus needs to involve strong collaboration. We will only break through the challenges of healthcare as mutually supportive leaders working together.