Acting as supreme commander is not leadership

Your medical training has failed you. When it comes to leadership, acting as the supreme commander — large and in charge — is not solving your problem.

You are racing from patient to patient, running as fast as you can to keep up. You see your income falling while your workload increases and the joy you used to derive in helping people to live healthier lives evaporating. How much longer can you continue?

I met with a group of physicians from a large health care system this week as they discussed what it means to be a physician leader and the benefits of embracing that role. For themselves, for their patients and for their families and friends. They described two key approaches that have been instrumental in their growth both as physicians and leaders. Remarkably, they are the same strategies used by the very best corporate leaders around the globe.

Combining the best of medical leadership and corporate leadership? What a concept!

Practicing these two methodologies in parallel will give you more strength, more capacity to share your unique talents and the energy to take care of yourself and enjoy the lifestyle you’ve earned at the same time.

Your True North

The first takeaway they discussed is focusing relentlessly on what I like to call your True North. It’s your mission, in corporate terms.

Exceptional patient care, helping people to live at their highest possible state of health, is why you became a physician in the first place. When you think about your very best days at work, they most likely always include rewarding patient experiences where you know you’ve operated within your zone of genius to change someone’s life. It’s what recharges your batteries and helps to fend off exhaustion and burn out.

The question is, even if you’re solid on your True North, how ingrained is that belief in the rest of your organization? How do you inspire them to the same True North?

What if they all had a passion for improving patient care and felt empowered to be creative?

As an example, Mayo Clinic has a simple mission, inspired by William Mayo himself. “The needs of the patient come first.” Every single person, from housekeeping to C-suite, is involved in making this a reality. Patients feel it. Employees are rewarded for creative ways they go the extra mile for their patients. Staying focused on excellence in taking care of the patient leads directly to financial success.

One of my mentors at Hewlett-Packard told me many years ago: “Take care of your customers, and the business will follow.” Stay focused on your True North, and success in all other areas ensues.

There’s a story about a man taking an old tire back to Nordstrom, the high-end department store, in Palo Alto. He insisted that he had purchased it there and wanted a refund. The local store manager was empowered to put the customer first, and took the tire with a smile, giving the man a “refund” for his purchase, creating thousands of loyal customers warmed by the story.

That’s the passion you want to instill in your entire organization. How to do so without preaching?

Try this as a start: catch a few of your people doing something great for a patient, something above and beyond their job description. Thank them and tell them how much you appreciate their effort. Then tell everyone else about it. You’ll be amazed at the reaction that cascades. Soon you will be creating rave patient reviews without asking for them, and you will have unleashed initiative in your organization that you never thought possible.

Create leverage

Face it. There are no more hours in the day, and you are already working harder than you ever imagined you would at this point. How many times have you been late for dinner this week and then still had charting to do late into the night? When will you explode, trying to give all of your full attention to your patients and then turning around to desperately attempt to foster your relationships with your family and friends? And what about you? How healthy are you? When was the last time you made it to happy hour or the weekly tennis match with friends or the kids’ soccer games?

The second insight these physician leaders discussed is that stepping into the role of a physician leader actually creates more time than it takes. It’s what accelerated my corporate career as well — create an army of passionate leaders instead of doing it all yourself. It creates leverage, success, and time for all of the things you just can’t get to today. And it develops more leaders for the strength of your organization. It’s a secret strategy!

They talked about simple, powerful leadership. Make people feel important.

Take care of your people, and they will take care of your patients.

Focus on your strengths; you don’t need to be perfect. Sharpen your ability to help others to be successful leaders. The most impactful statement I heard was from a surgeon, talking about feeling the need to be perfect as a leader and feeling unprepared to do so. “100 percent perfect is critical for my role as a surgeon,” he said, “there is no room for error.” “However, 80 percent is good for my role as a leader, because the 20 percent failure is good for organizational growth. It builds institutional muscle, just like physical therapy strengthens the body after an injury.”

You can change your life and those of your patients. You’ve got the talent and skills. Apply them in a new way and see what stepping into a new role as a physician leader can do for you.

Choose to be an inspirational leader. Lead people like they’ve never been led before, for remarkable results for you and your patients.

Karyn P. Grant is president, Karyn P. Grant Consulting.

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