The leadership mix: Healthcare execs are born and made

Are leaders born, or are they made? This is a question that Bryan Bennett often grapples with.

He had always considered himself a natural-born leader. In fact, he focused his career almost entirely around leadership. But when he took one of his first leadership courses, he struggled with the idea that leaders were neither born nor made. In writing one of his books, he settled on an answer — leaders are both born and made.

What's the challenge in healthcare?

As an adjunct faculty at Northwestern University, Mr. Bennett teaches courses in analytics. He also works as a healthcare data science consultant and has authored two books — with a third available in January — on successful leadership techniques for healthcare professionals. Additionally, he is the executive director and founder of the Healthcare Center of Excellence, a research and consulting group that helps healthcare organizations identify, understand, implement and manage technologies, processes and human resources.

Mr. Bennett says healthcare faces a leadership challenge — one that has been propagated by industry transformation and technology deficiencies. Healthcare leaders face rapid regulatory and technology changes that impact organizations throughout the industry equally. What's more, in this industry, leaders are often siloed, spending much of their careers in limited functional areas, which makes it hard for them to build deep, trusting relationships with people in other functional areas. When executives must adapt quickly but do not always have expertise far off their path, leadership skills become evermore crucial.

For his most recent book, Prescribing Leadership in Healthcare: Curing the Challenges Facing Today's Healthcare Leaders, Mr. Bennett dedicated nearly 18 months to interviewing healthcare leaders in order to find out what qualities make them capable. He concluded that healthcare leaders exude four common, often innate qualities — risk-taking, vision, empathy and humility.

Innate characteristics of a leader

Leaders must be willing to take risks, Mr. Bennett argues. He explains that by accepting a leadership role, the leader has fundamentally accepted some risk.

All leaders also have some kind of vision — meaning they can often understand when something is going to happen before it happens. This analytical skill helps guide organizations if the leader is able to get others to buy into their vision.

Gaining that buy-in requires empathy. Leaders are not only able to mentally identify with the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of both their direct reports and their indirect reports, but they also often establish sincere relationships with these people. Mr. Bennett believes it is "important … for leaders to hear and to understand both sides of the issue" because "you [can] try to get people to do things for you, there is only so much coercion you can use."

Leaders are humble, a quality Mr. Bennett says shocked him to discover almost every leader embodied.

"You need that humility to be able to not put yourself ahead of the job or the organization," he says. Humility helps leaders recognize their own standing and make everyone feel equal. Although this trait can be learned to a degree, authentic humility can be hard to replicate, Mr. Bennett explains in his book. Humble leaders make themselves available to the people they work with — although their time is valuable, they are sure to take moments to listen and discuss issues important to others.

These qualities help leaders react and interact with their primary influences: their followers and their environment. And in healthcare, this is particularly important.

A leader's followers are their constituents — in healthcare, these are the physicians, patients and community. These people embody the leader's norms, values and status. The environment also strongly influences a leader. This is the atmosphere in which the leader and followers interact. The environment includes the mix of cultures, tasks, changes and governmental impacts to a specific industry. When a leader works with followers in an environment effectively, each member in the "model" positively influences one another.  

These three influences — the leader, his or her followers and their environment — must maintain equilibrium for a leader to be effective. For example, when a challenge is posed, such as a new regulation, the environment may throw off the leadership model's balance and cause the leader to guide with too much power. Then, all three players must employ tools, like engagement on social media, in order to adapt to the changes and return to stability.

The five-step process

However, leadership is not a skill; it's a process, according to Mr. Bennett.

He says there are five steps leaders must take to garner successful followers in complex environments. His process is a modified Kolb learning method, which is the four-step learning process whereby individuals experience a situation, reflect upon the experience, analyze ways of improve, and then apply these new ideas to future situations .

For Mr. Bennett's process, an executive should begin by assessing their leadership qualities and their influences. Then, they should establish a personalized leadership philosophy or vision statement derived from their self-assessment, some of which can be shared with others, while other parts Mr. Bennett recommends keeping private. This vision will help provide consistency in the way a leader behaves and guides their followers.

"[Part of] my leadership strategy is I like to get to know people," Mr. Bennett explains. He says he tries to get to know people as well as he can — know their families, their birthdays, things they enjoy. "I think that's important; it goes from visioning to the living," or step three in his process.

The "living" step is where the leader implements and executes their vision. Leaders deploy tools like communication, motivation, observation, empathy, storytelling and social leadership to carry out their leadership strategies. This could involve turning to social media to share the organization's successes and lessons learned with the community or identifying team members who may need a bit of extra help in a polite and timely manner.

However, the last two steps, reflecting and coaching or mentoring, are the two most important phases, Mr. Bennett says.

"[Coaching or mentoring is] the part that most leaders don't really do as much as they should," he says, adding he has been seeing a mentor for years. For him, the act of reflecting is also therapeutic. Both preparing before important meetings and writing down afterthoughts, on a daily basis, has helped him improve his leadership technique.

Leadership is "something that has to be worked at every day," Mr. Bennett says. "It's not something that you can just [think about] once in a while … If you are not passionate about how you are going to lead, you are not going to be a good leader."

Lessons learned

In Mr. Bennett's many years working in healthcare, he says the biggest takeaway he has gleaned is leaders need to be involved. In fact, as the industry transitions toward more advanced, technology-based solutions, Mr. Bennett believes now more than ever, leaders must commit to understanding and conveying their roles successfully.

Driving new initiatives, engaging physicians, or getting followers involved upfront must come from the leaders. People in decision-making positions must also understand all aspects of a solution in order to sell it. All team members must stay involved and understand their importance to drive an initiative through.

"Working with people who are very smart, you have to understand what their needs are and their goals are and work with that," Mr. Bennett concludes. 

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