Why healthcare needs inspirational leaders and how to become one

"If it's to be, it's up to me."

That is the philosophy that has guided Dan Nielsen, founder, CEO and publisher of America's Healthcare Leaders, throughout his professional career. A quintessential self-starter, Mr. Nielsen left his home in Western Nebraska the night of his high school graduation with just $35 in his pocket.

After growing up "on the wrong side of town with no money," Mr. Nielsen made a vow to himself to never be poor again. In college, on top of being a full-time student, he worked 40 hours and seven days a week, with jobs including a 55-mile paper route and the graveyard shift at an assembly line.

"Most of the time I was dead tired," says Mr. Nielsen. "I had no social life. Yet I was increasingly energized and inspired by the success I was achieving in college. I learned that this poor boy from Nebraska had more potential than I'd ever dreamed."

Fueled by his achievements and a powerful intrinsic desire to succeed, Mr. Nielsen eventually went on serve as CEO of Dallas-Fort Worth Medical Center, senior executive at VHA (now Vizient) and a professor/faculty member at several Texas universities. He attributes his successful career to numerous factors, including an unshakable work ethic, humble beginnings and numerous positive mentors. But most importantly, Mr. Nielsen says he was inspired.

Now, Mr. Nielsen says his passion is serving as a source of inspiration to others, and helping leaders across the healthcare industry refine their leadership skills and inspire their own employees.

Becoming an inspirational leader

In his book, Be an Inspirational Leader: Engage, Inspire, Empower, Mr. Nielsen emphasizes that one needn't be a "born leader" to be an inspirational leader. In fact, he basically dismisses the notion that born leaders exist at all. Instead, he says the traits that make an individual an exceptional leader can all be acquired from a combination of experience, formal leadership training and mentorship.

There are a few steps individuals can take to become an inspirational leader. The first is committing to your goal and making leadership development a lifelong habit. "On a daily basis, ask yourself what specific steps can I take to better engage and inspire people?" Mr. Nielsen says. Leaders who tailor their actions to the needs, desires and motivations of their employees become sources of inspiration.

Another essential practice: always seek opportunities to learn from others. Whether that comes in the form of enlisting a career coach, seeking numerous mentors or reading leadership books, one can always learn something new from others' experiences.

Why healthcare needs inspirational leaders

Numerous studies have reaffirmed the same sad finding: millions of Americans are not engaged in their work. Gallup's latest State of the American Workplace survey report indicates just 30 percent of the American workforce is engaged in their work, meaning 70 percent of workers are not reaching their full potential.

In healthcare, low engagement among clinical staff could contribute to poor patient outcomes and hurt the bottom line. While numerous factors influence employees' degree of engagement, inspirational leaders can help build it up and reawaken the sense of calling that first drew them into the field of healthcare to begin with.

According to Mr. Nielsen, inspirational leaders inherently promote engagement in the following ways.

1. They engage people individually and collectively. "When you're looking at someone — whether they're your employee, patient or client — imagine they have a sign on their head that says 'engage me,'" says Mr. Nielsen. Leaders who successfully engage employees as individuals and in groups know how to tailor their communication based on the people, setting and situation. They don't speak in generics — they take the time to learn about those they lead and communicate in a way that will appeal to their personal drives and motivations.

2. They empower others. No matter one's position or status in the organization, inspirational leaders make sure each employee knows how he or she contributes to the greater organizational mission. They know that individuals feel empowered when they feel their work is meaningful.

3. They are authentic. In his book, Mr. Nielsen explains that inspirational leaders are distinguishable from their peers because they possess the following nine key traits: accountability, authenticity, desire to learn, approachability, responsiveness, flexibility, engaging, inspiring and empowering. Of these, Mr. Nielsen says authenticity is the most important.

"Authenticity is the foundation of all true success and highly successful leadership," he says. "It doesn't take long to identify true authenticity or the opposite. People can tell in a New York minute if you're a phony, and people don't trust phonies."

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