6 thoughts on leadership from Dr. Michael Ugwueke, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare

Dr. Michael Ugwueke led Memphis, Tenn.-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare as president and COO since May 2014, and on Jan. 1 he assumed the role of president and CEO of the system.

The six-hospital system recruited Dr. Ugwueke in 2007 from what was then Provena Health in Joliet, Ill., where he served as vice president of operations. (Provena later merged to become Chicago-based Presence Health.) After he arrived in Memphis, Dr. Ugwueke spent a couple years as administrator/CEO of Methodist South Hospital, roughly four years as senior vice president for Methodist North and South Hospitals and one year as COO of the system before taking on the role of president as well.

Dr. Ugwueke's story spans far beyond Memphis or Joliet. He was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States when he was 21 with aspirations to work in healthcare after seeing illness, death and turmoil during Nigeria's civil war.

He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in biology from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. He earned his master's of public health from Emory University in Atlanta and a doctorate in health administration and leadership from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Today he oversees Methodist Le Bonheur — the second largest private employer in Memphis, a 2016 Best Workplace for Diversity and ranked No. 1 for African Americans by Fortune and Great Place to Work, and a 1,725 bed system that accommodates nearly 65,000 inpatient admissions per year.

Becker's Hospital Review caught up with Dr. Ugwueke to discuss leadership — his personal style, the leader he admires most and traits he seeks in others that aren't commonly discussed in business or management literature. The following interview was edited lightly for style and clarity.

Question: How would others describe your leadership style?

Dr. Michael Ugwueke: For the most part, folks would probably describe my style as one of pursuing excellence. I am a goal-oriented and results-driven leader. I have a bias toward action with a sense of urgency. I'm very decisive. I am very collaborative and consider others' input, but ultimately one has to make the decision and carry out the initiative. I keep my focus on priorities and goals and am not easily distracted by activities.

Basically my style is working with the team to decide what needs to be done and marshalling the resources for the folks who get it done. It's a matter of just trying to get things accomplished quicker.

Q: What do you consider an underrated virtue in leadership today?

MU: Having the right attitude, being reliable and having a sense of pride in what you do. Those things are rarely talked about as much as other traits, but I think they're important. —.

The other thing I think about, and I'm not sure how to measure it but I look for it, is people who are really persistent and unafraid to fail. I always believe if people are not comfortable with some level of failure, they will not try hard or make tough decisions.

Q: Can you share some advice to up-and-coming leaders about becoming authentic on the job?

MU: Try not to believe your own press clippings. The accolades and positive things you hear can be intoxicating. It's easy to be lured into thinking you're this and that. Instead, stay hungry and humble as my mentor says.

It's also important to have clarity of goals and know what people expect of you as a young leader. I tell folks, 'Don't just settle for meeting the goals.' One has to always try to exceed expectations. Meeting goals is just par for the course. It's the ticket to the event, but you have to always strive to exceed expectations. Oftentimes meeting goals gets you to average. Who wants to be average, especially when lives are on the line? Henry Ward Beecher [a 19th century American Congregationalist clergyman] said, "Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you."

The other part is the importance of team collaboration and the willingness to give credit to those who support and help you along the way. That encourages them to continue to support you. Be true to who you are and always remember that there is no 'I' in a 'TEAM.'

Q: What are some of your preferred methods for staying engaged with your team, especially those on the front lines?

MU: We have over 13,000 associates at Methodist Le Bonheur. When I was the CEO of Methodist South hospital with 700 associates — one of my goals was to know everyone by name and know their story. Back in those days, I did it by personally hand delivering a birthday card to every associate. We'd exchange words, and I really began to remember them. By the end of my first year I knew them all.

These days, with 13,000 associates, it is a little challenging. I do a lot of executive rounding. We have executive-patient rounds, where I sit down with front-line associates to hear about their challenges and what they need help with. We have meetings with all associates after their orientation and again after they've been with Methodist Le Bonheur for 90 days. We talk about their time here so far and what they've noticed, how their experience compares to their initial impressions and feedback in terms of what they see with a fresh set of eyes. I also attend associate functions we have throughout the system and present at orientations. That gives me an opportunity to meet new employees.

Q: Which leader, living or past, do you most admire? Why?

MU: Martin Luther King Jr. — I know a lot of people admire him. A reminder for me is thinking about how young he was at the time while leading this huge movement that truly made difference worldwide. He died before he was 40. For him to be able to participate, mobilize and motivate people to accomplish some of the things they accomplished in the 1960s is phenomenal.

Some of my favorite MLK Jr. quotes include: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy," and, "If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." Those two sum it up for me in terms of his leadership abilities.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would you target first?

MU: If I had a magic wand that would eradicate something in the industry overnight, it'd be cancer. It's a dreadful disease we struggle with. It is no coincidence that when you see the word cancer, even in ads for organizations, there is always a fight behind it. Fighting cancer. It's become a battle, so to speak, and it's one I would really love to see eliminated.

In a more practical sense, I'd love to eliminate what I would call poor compliance. Dismal patient compliance with regimens is baffling. More people could be saved if they complied with physicians' orders, regimens, medications and things of that nature. Very few patients listen to doctors when they say they need to change their lifestyle or lose weight.

And speaking of change, one of the things we've embarked on at Methodist Le Bonheur is zero harm to patients. We started our journey as a high reliability organization in June. Several years ago, we started tracking hospital-acquired conditions and things of that nature. We've made progress in some areas but not in all categories. There is now a much more intentional effort to achieve these goals. It's bad enough that patients have issues they are seeking care for; to compound it with unnecessary harm in the hospital — there is no excuse for it.

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