Be 'an idealist without illusions,' says 1 health system CEO

President John F. Kennedy once said, "I'm an idealist without illusions." His philosophy — striving for greatness within the margins of reality — could benefit health system leaders today, one executive told Becker's

We recently connected with Paul Babcock, president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Health & Hospital Corporation of Marion County to learn more about his leadership strategy in an ever-shifting environment. Here's what he spoke about, from fair pay to JFK: 

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the biggest way your health system has changed over the past year? 

PB: The needs of our patient population are always changing and we are more focused than ever on longer-term planning. We invested in a new Marion County Public Health Department lab project that will dramatically increase existing lab capabilities to track airborne infectious agents, a TB laboratory, a new STD clinic, and a loading dock with a warehouse for kit prep and surplus storage rooms. We also enhanced the organization’s administrative functions by raising initial salaries to a living wage of $18/hour, negotiating union contracts, and initiating the first compensation review in 20 years to promote equity. Finally, we are using our recently expanded financial knowledge to develop a strategic plan for the entire organization, across disparate departments.

Q: As a healthcare executive yourself, how do you identify the leaders of tomorrow amongst your employees? What traits and qualities stand out to you and indicate potential? Furthermore, how do you aim to recognize and develop that talent? 

PB: There are many qualities needed to be a good healthcare leader, including persistence, empathy, creativity and flexibility. We look for individuals who demonstrate those qualities in any field and — if they have a passion for health care, too — we look to develop their talent. We know there are many people with leadership potential who haven’t always gotten a chance to show their skills and we seek them out.

Q: Who was the best boss you ever had? What stands out to you about their leadership style, and how do you try to emulate it in your own work? Is there a golden piece of advice they gave you that you still think about today?

PB: The two best bosses I ever had were Jeffery Goveia, who was my supervisor when I was in Uganda for the Peace Corps, and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, for whom I worked when I was Director of Public Health and Safety. Both had essential leadership qualities of being mission-driven with an understanding of how to actually get things done. I think you need both abilities to be a truly effective public servant. President John F. Kennedy said of himself that he was "an idealist without illusions," and I try to incorporate that into every decision we make at HHC.

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