What separates 'good' leaders from 'great' ones?

Extensive research has shown that leaders, regardless of a formal title, shape the culture, life and performance of an organization. That's why it's imperative to have great leaders.

But, the question remains: What separates the "good" from the "great?"

Here, Becker's asked eight leaders to identify the characteristics and attributes that separate great leaders from good leaders.

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

Tim Dentry. President and CEO of Northern Light Health (Brewer, Maine): I have known many good leaders who have been very capable and get the job done. The great leaders I have known are those who are genuine, lead from the front and encourage those around them to believe in themselves and in the higher cause of service. Personally, I subscribe to the principles of servant leadership, with humility, by encouraging diversity of thought, creating a culture of caring and trust, all with an unselfish mindset. Great leaders show their true colors during the most trying of times; during the height of the pandemic these principles were invaluable as we quickly rallied the teams, created a nimble and effective decision-making process, and empowered all members of the organization to do the right thing first, with a culture of "yes." I also believe a great leader maintains a sense of humanity, connects with people early and often to balance reality with hope and confidence, and continuously be an inquisitive student of others. 

Marc Edelman. Senior Vice President and COO of Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center (Bangor): A good leader knows when to lead, run with the pack or stay out of the way. Great leaders provide mentorship to develop the team to drive the organization to success. It is a we and us, not an I.

Judy Frum, BSN, RN. COO of Broward Health Medical Center (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.): Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "A good leader inspires people to have confidence in their leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves."

Throughout the course of my life and career, I have been privileged to work with many leaders, both good and great. There are those who are unforgettable and those who simply help us to the next chapter. What are characteristics that set apart these influential, progressive people? We've all had plenty of good leaders who are committed and hardworking. Consistent, they get the job done while staying within the confines of the box. Believing in themselves, the team and the vision, yet often, they are not as inspiring as we would like them to be.

Great leaders, on the other hand, are game changers, leading from a place of selflessness, energy and passion. Never worrying about being in the spotlight, they provide unconditional support to ensure every member of the team feels valued and special. There is an undeniable feeling that anything is possible when you are on their team. 

Great leaders are present, authentic and courageous. They don’t settle for mediocrity and have an innate ability to be disruptive if the outcome serves the greater good. Never shying away from the hard conversations, they don’t make excuses or find fault. The goal is helping the team find their greatness.

To those great leaders who chose me to be on their team, you have inspired and empowered me to believe anything is possible. 

Jill Hoggard Green, PhD, RN. President and CEO of the Queen's Health Systems (Honolulu): There are leaders that are clinicians at the front lines, there are leaders that are managers and directors and there are executive leaders. In all cases, a leader needs to have a vision, a picture of where we can be that is greater than where we are today. Vision is important, but that is only a piece of what great leadership is. For me, it is essential that leaders partner with the people they serve. For example, as CEO of a health system, I need to be able to partner with the patients we are serving and the broader community, in addition to working with individuals in government. Additionally, I need to partner with other leaders and the frontline teams that are your privilege to serve and support. We are here, in leadership, to serve and create an environment to allow our teams to be the most effective at achieving our mission. Overall, the thing that separates the good leaders from great is not just having a vision and being able to direct. It is truly being able to serve, partner with and support the patients you serve, the community you serve and clinicians you serve. 

I'd also add that a great leader knows how to build the team that directly works with them as well as creates teams throughout their organization. Nothing is done without teams and we must work together to support each other and take on new challenges every day.

When I hire leaders, I expect that they have the humility of continuous learning and a spirit of generosity to educate and support in whatever way the people they are working with need. To me, that is great leadership.

In terms of characteristics of great leaders, I'd say it's really important to have strength, often in the form of moral strength, as well as the courage to move forward when others think it can't be done and the courage to address inequity. Great leaders have tremendous courage, humility and strength. 

Sanjay Shetty, MD. President of Steward Health Care System (Dallas): As we saw throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, great leaders can emerge from the most desperate of circumstances. What sets them apart is their ability to confront new realities quickly, creatively, and with empathy. From my perspective, great leadership in care delivery starts by putting the patient at the center of everything we do. Every decision and every action must be made with the patient'’s best interests in mind. The pandemic forced healthcare systems and providers to move quickly and leverage new capabilities, but at Steward we always ensured what we were doing was the right thing for our patients, since we know that it is ultimately the right thing for our staff and the communities we serve. 

Janet Tomcavage, MSN, RN. Executive Vice President and Chief Nursing Executive at Geisinger (Danville, Pa.): Being a great leader means effective listening and then empowering your team to use their voice, gather the facts, make decisions and ultimately learn from their experiences — good and bad experiences that will continue to arm them with the skills they need to realize the greatness they have within themselves. I started my career as a bedside nurse and then as an individual contributor in a nurse educator/specialist role for almost 20 years before I stepped into a formal leadership role. I understand the value and contribution that front line staff have in any organization. The pandemic has been incredibly difficult — I've witnessed unwavering efforts by our nurses and other care teams and have been truly inspired by the way our teams continue to deliver the best care to patients and our communities while supporting each other.

Being in a leadership position is one of the most challenging and rewarding roles that I've held. We know that the pandemic has forever changed healthcare and that the future of our work will look different. Being a great leader, especially as we head into this new chapter, will require fortitude and creativity while lifting up our teams to "rethink the routine" and embrace new methods of delivering care to the patients and communities we serve. Investing in our teams is a critical element of leadership — whether that be removing barriers that are getting in the way of executing a project or supporting their recovery after the incredible journey they have experienced. Today's leader will need to address well-being and safety in our workforce and develop a commitment to ongoing investment in our people. Great leaders acknowledge their own gaps, get out of the way and build a team that takes calculated risks to change.

Our teams are working hard to redefine the care team for the future for both the inpatient and outpatient settings so that each team member can leverage their skill sets and reach their full potential. And while we will face challenges along the way (change is hard), I have no doubt that our nursing team will rise to meet them head on — just as they always do. In the process, I hope to support each team member to find fulfillment in their role and to keep learning, growing and working together as part of a team that delivers compassionate and high-quality care to our patients.

Terri Vieira. President of Northern Light Inland Hospital, Northern Light Sebasticook Valley Hospital and Northern Light Continuing Care Lakewood (Brewer, Maine): Great leadership leads by example and inspires others to be confident in their ability to lead. Our experience through the pandemic is a good example where leaders set safety rules and followed them, acting as role models for staff who were entrusted to be safety champions for our patients and for each other.

Ali Worster. Vice President of Human Resources and Patient Experience at Northern Light Health (Brewer, Maine): A good leader knows the goals of the organization, how the organization works, and supports staff to get to those goals. A great leader knows how their organization really functions on the front lines, what stressors individuals who make things happen are under, and demonstrates empathy and action to encourage and remove barriers for staff to achieve personal, departmental and organizational goals.

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