Color is often used as a metaphor for personality and emotion. Terms like “red in the face,” “feeling blue,” and “green with envy” are etched in the vernacular. Great leadership requires emotional intelligence, and the best leaders lead in full color.
Colorful leadership is about seeing the whole picture, unfiltered by our own preferences and experiences. Colorful leaders have been depicted in books, movies, and songs. The “flower exercise” was at the heart of the number one best-seller What Color Is Your Parachute, a book that culminates in a one-page What Color Is Your Parachute flower diagram of the reader’s unique flower that contains a visual summary of their personality as it relates to their career development, goals, and objectives.
Cyndi Lauper’s smash hit True Colors is about looking below the surface to see what a person is really like. The song is about being unafraid to show your true colors – in other words, to be yourself. True Colors took on special meaning in the gay community, which is represented by a rainbow pride flag. (Lauper has long been a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights.)
Recently, I came across a compilation of songs by the French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani (1962-1999). The compact disc (CD) is titled Colors. The CD cover displays the colors of the rainbow (in the shape of a record album) and ten qualities representative of Petrucciani’s music. The same qualities, in my opinion, can be found in the best medical leaders. Briefly, they are:
1. Action. Medical leaders are action-oriented. Their goals are achieved by doing rather than dictating. Medical leaders serve as an example and role models for others.
2. Dignity. Medical leaders treat everyone with kindness, compassion, and respect. They embrace diversity and inclusiveness in the workforce.
3. Spiritual. Emerging research has shown that health care leaders who are more developed in terms of their spirituality are highly effective leaders and achieve more positive results for their organizations. Spiritual leaders have been shown to reduce burnout among health care workers.
4. Sentimental. Patients possess strong sentiments about the health care they receive. Virtually every interaction with a provider or hospital will trigger a positive or negative reaction, immortalized in online reviews. As a result, sentimental leaders are extremely valuable to their organizations. They are empowered to optimize the patient experience and enhance business outcomes on a larger scale.
5. Serious. Promoting individuals for leadership and management roles is a serious concern with global implications. It requires a serious commitment to aspiring leaders as well as policy-makers who must have the courage to give autonomy to medical leaders and support them.
6. Passive. Passivity is usually cited as a reason why leaders fail. But when it comes to their personal lives, medical leaders need to learn how to “chill” and take care of themselves. Some leaders find the entire concept of self-care to be antithetical to their image of a great leader. News flash: Leaders need self-care, too!
7. Peaceful. Peacebuilding in the medical profession is critical. It has been suggested that medical leaders have the ability to contribute to peacebuilding efforts worldwide by analyzing and resolving conflict and building trust among people and organizations. As opposed to the many toxic characteristics that have come to dominate leadership circles in the United States, experience from the United Kingdom shows that a peaceful and level-headed approach to managing medical systems correlates with better quality of care, better financial performance, higher levels of patient satisfaction, lower levels of staff stress and, in hospitals, a lower level of avoidable patient mortality in organizations.
8. Violence. Violence is an odd choice to describe Petrucciani’s music, given that it was highly lyrical. Yet, violence and medicine are not strange bedfellows. Violent encounters between shooters and medical personnel are all too common. Furthermore, medical errors have been responsible for perpetuating violence, albeit unintentionally, against the very individuals medical practice intends to help. More than ever, health care leaders must focus on reducing medical error and detecting burned-out and impaired physicians who unwittingly cause harm to their patients.
9. Sorrow. Medical leaders must understand and deal with long-term periodic sadness that the chronically ill and their caregivers experience in reaction to continual losses. They must learn to support their grieving colleagues and know when normal grief reactions have morphed into pathological forms of grief, such as clinical depression. This is especially difficult in light of the controversy, both within and outside the field of psychiatry, regarding the boundaries of normal sadness and major depression.
10. Happiness. Cultivating happiness in medicine has become a key strategic objective of many graduate medical education programs. Many institutions have appointed chief wellness officers to leadership roles and tasked them to implement and oversee a holistic and comprehensive plan to reduce burnout and bolster individual wellness.
Michel Petrucciani died from complications of osteogenesis imperfecta. Despite his physical limitations, chronic pain, and small stature – just 3 feet – he was a jazz piano giant. In his brief 36 years, Petrucciani recorded or appeared on more than 40 albums, many with jazz luminaries. He was the subject of several tributes and awards. Petrucciani was buried at Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, one grave away from Fredric Chopin.
I wish the qualities embodied in Petrucciani’s music were universal among medical leaders. Because right now, it seems they are viewing things through rose-colored glasses.
Arthur Lazarus is a psychiatrist.
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