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The Mind (and Heart) of a Good Leader

Molly Rowe, Senior Editor, Leadership, October 12, 2007

Last week I wrote about what makes a good team. This week, I'm in Chicago at HealthLeaders Media's Top Leadership Teams in Healthcare Annual Conference, surrounded by award-winning leaders, which got me thinking: What makes a good leader?

I'm not the only one asking this question. A growing number of researchers are using neuroscience to further understand how leaders tick. A recent Wall Street Journal article describes the work of an Arizona State University management professor who is scanning the brains of 500 leaders in an attempt to map how leaders think. Test subjects include a former dean, a one-footed mountaineer who climbed Mt. Everest, and 50 West Point cadets. The professor plans to plot a map of the leader brain then train "ordinary" brains to act like those of leaders.

My research is much less scientific. I asked a dozen or so healthcare professionals to define good leadership. The feedback I got was not only informative; it was inspiring. I'm always talking with leaders who rave about their teams, but this week, I heard from teams who rave about their leaders. I asked the question, "What makes a good leader in healthcare?" Some common themes emerged:

Experience: Promoting a message or mission is one thing, but backing that message up with actual clinical experience gives leaders an edge when proposing new initiatives or processes. Legitimate or not, workers see leaders who have past clinical experience as having a deeper understanding of how hospitals work. This is not to say that every great leader has previous clinical experience but it doesn't hurt--especially in staff relations.

"Our CEO and president has many outstanding qualities. She is a strong, effective leader and a visionary, who sets many goals and standards for all our clinical staff--and she is a registered nurse, which goes a long way with the 500 nurses that work in our institution," says Gayla Jackson, nurse manager at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Boston.

Backbone: Great leaders fight for their people. They clear away barriers--be it human ones, like the board's misaligned priorities, or technical ones, like staff shortages and out-of-date technology. They are decisive while being fair and reasonable.

As I've witnessed firsthand at this week's conference, successful teams spend more time learning from their mistakes than patting each other on the back in self-congratulation. The same goes for successful leaders. The best leaders stand up for staff during conflicts or screw-ups--but they also confront mistakes.

Trust: Healthcare is dynamic and ever-changing; it can even be unpredictable. To adapt, staff must be empowered to think creatively. Great leaders hire greatness. They bring in quality people and give them the freedom to solve tough problems. They coach and cultivate future leaders. As one person told me, hospitals with great leaders run smoothly--even when the leader is not there.

Ability to inspire: There's a big difference between a "manager" and a "leader." A manager oversees a process; a leader instills a vision.

"In healthcare, especially larger hospitals, the people who most often touch our patients are the people farthest removed from the CEO," said Candace Hamner, Vice President of Care Management at Northwest Hospital in Maryland. "In this setting, the truly great CEOs I have seen have the ability to inspire, influence, and motivate everyone throughout the organization to WANT to follow the CEO's vision. Notice I said 'want,' not 'will.'

"It may be a tall order but great leaders model the behavior they expect.

Patient-focus: Unlike a lot of industries where the products are widgets, healthcare deals in people. "Great leaders keep the patient in the room--no matter what we are doing," said Cynthia Barnard, Director of Quality Strategies at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "It is not about our egos and needs, although we have to accommodate and nurture the human beings who provide care, too. The purpose of our professional existence is to benefit the patient, and a great leader keeps that front and center."


Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at mrowe@healthleadersmedia.com.

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