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"World's Best Boss"? Says who?

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Media, April 18, 2008

Are you a good leader? Asking that question is a lot like asking whether you’re a good parent. I mean, everybody thinks they are. How many fathers would say, “I’m a terrible dad.” Leaders are much the same. But how do you really know? For parents, the answer often comes 20-30 years in, when your children become functioning, responsible, happy adults. But CEOs don’t have that kind of time.

Whenever I attend a leadership conference, I’m amazed by how many leaders leave early during the presentation on good leadership. By session’s end, it’s usually just me, a few other journalists, and three or four fresh-faced business grads being groomed for future leadership. Apparently long-time leaders don’t need new tips to lead, nor do they need a refresher course.

But here’s the thing: Like parents, leaders change, evolve, and grow over time--as do the people they’re leading. Parents will tell you they’re still learning and adjusting their parenting style 10, 20, 30 years in. Parents don’t parent a 30-year-old the same way they parent a 3-year-old. How do you lead over time? How do you ensure that you’re still giving your staff the leadership they need?

A few weeks ago I wrote about George Masi, executive vice president and COO of Harris County Hospital District in Houston, whom I met at last month’s ACHE conference. During his presentation, Masi outlined the attributes of a good leader. A few of his rules are worth reading even if you think you’re an able leader.

Good leaders write it out. So many leaders will pass workers in the hall and shout out a bunch of to-do items for a project, then wonder why the process ends up broken. Don’t send your staff running around trying to decipher your instructions. Set clear directions and take the time to write them out.

Good leaders research and make decisions. Some executives are great at the research but not so good at the decision-making. These leaders do a lot of ready, aim, ready, aim, but never pull the trigger. You need analysis and research but at some point you need to fire. All that research you’ve been doing on retail clinics? As my grandfather says, “it’s time to act (not exactly his word) or get off the pot.”

Good leaders don’t promise what they can’t deliver. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but as leaders, occasionally, you have to be. Don’t tell people you’re going to fight to add staff or get bigger raises if you know that won’t happen. Sometimes being a leader means being able to tell the hard truth.

Good leaders run a good meeting. By Masi’s definition, a “good meeting” is under an hour. I’m not sure all meetings will fit in that category but it’s a good goal. More importantly, make sure yours are organized and action-oriented.

Good leaders promptly return phone calls and e-mails. Oh, such a simple thing but in the Land of a Thousand E-mails, it’s not so easy. Easy or not, it’s an essential leadership principle. Leaders who sit on e-mails hold up processes.

Obviously there’s a lot more to leadership than timely e-mails and well-run meetings, but these few rules are among the most often broken by leaders. I’ve written before about the importance of evaluating your leaders, but you also must evaluate yourself (and do so honestly). Do you regularly assess your leadership style? Do you talk to your staff about how you can improve? Like parenting, leadership may seem like a natural inclination but it’s not. The best leaders read books, consult experts, and seek to constantly improve.

Masi’s best indicator of good leadership came at the end of his presentation--ironically when many of the leaders in the room had walked out.

“You have arrived as a leader when your staff does their jobs because they don’t want to disappoint you--not because they are scared of you or other reasons--but because they don’t want to disappoint your expectations.”

Hmm, sounds a lot like good parenting.


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

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