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Four Steps to Better Leadership

Philip Betbeze, for HealthLeaders Media, March 12, 2010

Sometimes we all need a refresher course in what it takes to be a good leader—me included.

Yes, I am an Eagle Scout (thanks largely to my parents hounding me after the coveted driver's license was secured at age 16), and served on many of the school leadership posts when I was younger.

In the more recent past, I've chaired the boards of a couple of charitable events and managed teams of writers and editors for the publications for which I've worked.

I learned a lot of lessons about effective leadership, but without practice, those lessons fade. I suspect that's the way many of you who read this column look at your own leadership skills. They don't just stay sharp on their own. They need consistent honing.

My wife and I are renovating a house here in Nashville. It will be a great house when it's finished, but in order to afford the project, we decided to jettison the huge estimate for painting the interior of the place and do it ourselves. That is, ourselves, with a more than generous dollop of helping hands from friends and family. We got the party started last weekend priming the place and worked about 10 hours Saturday and Sunday. I'm still sore. We got it done, but it wouldn't have been remotely possible without the gang of volunteers who helped us.

In my current job, I spend most of my time on my own. I don't supervise anyone but myself, and believe me, that's a tall chore. But it's different, and during the painting party this weekend, it was funny how often I stopped to remind myself that oh yeah, this is a point where a good leader would do "x" and a bad one would do "y."

In any case, through this simple project, I re-learned four important lessons on leadership we could all learn from:

1. Trust your team to achieve the goal—even if it's a stretch
When we started Saturday morning, I told everyone that our goal was to get the entire house primed, including walls, ceilings, and closets, before the end of the weekend. I could tell my general contractor was laughing up his sleeve when I told him earlier in the week about this goal, but I was determined. Similarly, I saw eyes roll when I told our volunteers that this was what I envisioned. Seeing their reaction, I asked them to just do the best they could and we would probably be surprised at the results.

2. Listen to your lieutenants
Several times during the weekend, some of the best volunteers asked me if it would be OK to do something different than what I had asked them to do. Often this meant that several people would be stuck doing the same thing all day long, but that we would be more efficient in getting the work done—in other words—achieving the goal. Fine by me, I told them. Others thought of solutions to problems I never would have thought of on my own. If I treated them like hired help, they would've resented me, and probably gone home, because I was only paying them in pizza and beer.

3. Don't be afraid to pitch in on a project
I spent a lot of time going around and checking with people on their work. That's different than checking up on them. I started by asking them if there was anything I could do for them. I was reminded of the term "servant leadership" used by so many of the hospital and health system executives I interview—particularly the religious-based ones. I think people appreciated that approach.

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