'We had to beg her to not show up': Hospitals' on-the-ground leaders in your words

Earlier this month, I wrote about hospitals' ivory tower problem, in which leaders who spent time in the trenches at some point in their career gradually move into ivory towers shielded from the pain points, dynamics and ideas pulsing throughout their organization — and rarely realize it. 

Here's the thing about poor leadership: It's usually easy to spot. 

The most effective leaders, on the other hand, often go unnoticed. 

This is usually in line with their plan. The greats are content in the background, avoiding the limelight and letting their teams take credit for success. For as many healthcare leaders who may dwell in ivory towers, disconnected from their people, there are just as many who have been exemplary leaders before and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If you asked them, they might say they were just doing their job.

Servant leaders constantly look to enhance, empower and uplift the people around them. They build relationships with staff by listening closely, asking thoughtful questions and being humble about all they don't yet know. They are physically present (and not just for check-the-box rounding). They abandon preconceived notions and resist the phenomenon that people in positions of power face, when people tell them what they want to hear. Servant leaders are comfortable being wrong; that doesn't mean they ever stop striving to get it right. 

I asked readers to tell me about healthcare leaders who have left, or never resided in, ivory towers. You delivered. Here are contributed insights and portraits about the servant leaders among us: 

"Indeed, I do know the most genuine servant leader of all time: Ben Raimer, MD, president of University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. I have worked for and with Dr. Raimer for over 25 years through many leadership roles. He has never had ivory tower syndrome, and has always been an involved, inspirational, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-help leader. He brings out the best in everyone. He does not seek the limelight. He is sincere, compassionate and one of the smartest people I know. An excellent doctor and astute businessman."

 — Cissy Yoes, director of health policy and legislative affairs for University of Texas Medical Branch 

"Cathy Stankiewicz, CNO of AdventHealth Orlando, is an exemplary leader who no one can say leads from the ivory tower. I'm not sure she ever left the building during any of our COVID waves. I was her incident commander, and I know her deep level of caring, listening and correcting things for the front-line team. She instituted night shift rounding, where every person on our operations council — a few directors, but primarily executive directors and C-suite members — made up teams that rounded every night during the worst weeks of the peak of COVID during the July and August surge. We came in and folded gowns, filled supplies, attended huddles, listened to every nurse we could, and delivered free food to every unit. I would round and see nurse managers crying when they saw us filling supplies or folding gowns. We did this seven nights a week, with Cathy almost always present. We had to beg her to not show up. She is an unbelievable human and knows every inch of this space and every function happening." 

— Jenny Sippel-Tompkins, director of pharmacy for AdventHealth Orlando (Fla.)

"I have worked with dozens of CEOs over my 25 years in emergency medicine. There is one who stands out as a guy willing to get his hands dirty and help when needed. I worked in a smaller community hospital in Oklahoma with a CEO by the name of Dennis Barts. The ER was unusually overwhelmed with patients one day. An internal response was called, where resources from other areas of the hospital were deployed to decompress the surge. Mr. Barts was the first person there, taking his coat and tie off and literally rolling up his sleeves. He did not have a direct clinical background, but came to me and said, 'What can I do to help?' It felt a little awkward, but we really needed transporters and someone to turn rooms over. I said, 'We need to clean these rooms so we can turn them over for more patients waiting. When you're done with that, transport people to radiology, please.' He did just that. He gained a lot of respect from front-line workers. Twenty years later, he is still my hero." 

— Rick Blubaugh, DO, CMO of 360 Degree Medicine (Branson, Mo.) 

"Marc Gorelick, MD, CEO of Children's Minnesota, is an ER doc himself and did the traditional 'rounds' in the past. But with the staffing crisis related to COVID, he and his team developed a process to sign up for regular volunteer shifts to work on the front lines: folding gowns, delivering trays, helping with transport, etc. While this started as a way to find more manpower, it has turned into one of the most valuable experiences for driving engagement, increasing empathy among the executives and accelerating operational improvement. This program will continue even after COVID lets us get back to 'normal.'" 

— Archelle Georgiou, MD, chief health officer for Starkey Hearing Technologies and chair of Children's Minnesota board of directors (Minneapolis) 


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