Leading a hospital or health system is an undertaking that is nearly impossible to prepare for, so some of my past columns have offered advice to incoming executives on behaviors that I think are essential to success. Perhaps even more important than the list of things to do are actions that leaders must avoid if they hope to be effective.
Here are my views on what leaders must avoid at all costs:
Some leaders believe everything is about them, and whatever they say is right. When you become self-absorbed or have an exalted ego, you create your own sense of reality and it is impossible to get other team members to trust you. Trust is an essential. Without it, leaders are unable to generate buy-in from team members at any level of the organization.
A true sense of community is necessary to move a health system forward. Everyone must be willing to put their shoulders to the wheel together, and that is impossible when animosity festers among team members. Some leaders think a highly effective, motivational tactic is to encourage competition among members of their C-suite, but you would be hard pressed to find a successful sports team that thrives on this dynamic. The greatest teams in any sport come out of the locker room ready to fight for each other, and they understand that resentment undermines any chance of success. The same holds true for health care organizations, and leaders who think otherwise are doomed.
Being a leader requires putting yourself under a microscope, which can be difficult and uncomfortable for many people. The worst way you can react to those feelings is by surrounding yourself with sycophants whose best quality is their affirmation of your insecurities. Some leaders would rather create a circle of unqualified “yes-men” than team players who have the courage to speak their minds and disagree with their boss. Don’t demonize those who disagree with you. And remember that ideological alignment is not the basis for effective team building, so don't let a need to be liked cloud your better judgment.
In keeping with my previous point, while all leaders need to be confident, they also need to be open-minded and willing to consider opposing views. Excessive self-confidence can lead to the unfortunate and often-disastrous consequence of believing that you are always right – even when the evidence shows otherwise. Taking accountability by admitting failure and acknowledging it is a strength, not a weakness.
Rather than take responsibility for the state of their organizations, some leaders would rather blame their predecessors. While they think this clears their plate of any blame and gives them the air of infallibility, all it does is establish a culture absent of accountability, where blame passes from one employee to another. “Success,” as Winston Churchill so aptly stated, “going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” All leaders make mistakes and all decisions have downsides. To burnish your own reputation by ignoring the accomplishments of those who came before and excessively focusing on the negative avoids an essential element of leadership – taking responsibility.
Some leaders think content trumps communication, but how you spread a message is as important as the message itself. Make time for face-to-face interactions with team members at every level, and don't be afraid to engage people through technology. However, never hide behind technology as a means of avoiding in-person interactions.
Some leaders think they should only communicate with team members within their organizations when there is serious news that will have a significant impact on day-to-day operations. However, if your only point of view is how bad things are, you will undermine organizational pride and hurt the overall morale of your team. Leaders should accept responsibility for their mistakes and create a culture of accountability, but also celebrate everyday wins. Never forget that attitude comes from the top down, both in what you say and how you say it.
Leaders set the example for how employees should treat each other, and must be able to apologize to people they may have wronged, which demonstrates the value of humility. If leaders do not embody these positive values, the bar for civility will be lowered for all employees, and the results can be toxic and destructive.
This op-ed appeared in Becker's Hospital Review.