Chuck Lauer: Lessons for Hospital Leaders From 'Undercover Boss'

Every so often I watch the show "Undercover Boss" on CBS. It's about CEOs working incognito in low-ranking jobs within their own companies. The work is often stressful. Supervisors get exasperated with them and sometimes they are fired.

I've even seen undercover bosses break down and cry. It's both wrenching and fascinating, as any good reality show should be. But apart from the voyeurism, "Undercover Boss" is something C-suite executives would do well to watch and emulate.

When employees see the big cheese subjugating his or her own ego, something magical happens. Here is the CEO actually trying to understand the employees' working environment. The undercover boss comes away with an invaluable perspective on day-to-day operations.

Simple stuff, really, but how many CEOs and C-suite execs would be willing to become floor nurses, paramedics or surgical assistants for a week? Actually, CEO-friends of mine have done this. They were glad of it and came away with a much better understanding of how their institutions function.

An alternative to going undercover
However, if going undercover doesn't appeal to you, there are other ways to get the same kind of insight into your organization. For example, I am a great believer in walk-around management. It lets people know you care about what they do. True leaders are involved and intimately engaged with their people. They don't sit upstairs, aloof from ordinary, everyday challenges in their institution.

When you really know your employees, you can help them be more effective. True leaders don't fire people; they make them stronger through encouragement and training. To fire a person because they are miscast is a waste of time and morale. Finding out what their strengths are and giving them the opportunity to grow in another assignment is true leadership. You need to be totally focused on that person to assess his or her needs and then provide that to them.

It sounds like a lot of apple pie, doesn't it? Just terrific stuff but impossible to carry out with any degree of success! Not true, by any means! This sort of work is standard practice in the military. Officers in the United States Marine Corps, for example, are instructed to take care of their soldiers first and meet their own needs last. That's what leadership basically is all about. Helping others achieve success, and, therefore, help the organization reap the dividends from productive and competent employees.

A need for leaders
The economy is just beginning to show some signs of recovery and people seem more relaxed about their futures. But one thing is missing. The nation in general and healthcare in particular need leaders. We need people who are dedicated to their workers and to getting things done. We need people willing to take risks to improve the capabilities of their organizations.

Some leaders are already doing these things, but we need more of them. Enlightened leadership is the responsibility of all CEOs. They have to mentor future leaders in their respective organizations. It takes time, patience and sacrifice. But if it if isn't done and done soon, healthcare may go the way of so many other industries and wallow in an ocean of mediocrity.

Chuck Lauer ( was publisher of Modern Healthcare for more than 25 years. He is now an author, public speaker and career coach who is in demand for his motivational messages to top companies nationwide.

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