Leadership Series 1: Striving for Excellence in Healthcare Leadership

It has been my privilege to serve in diverse leadership and advisory roles over the years for premier healthcare institutions and biopharmaceutical organizations. These roles include research laboratory head, academic executive appointments and founder, director and/or advisor for biotech and pharma, as well as non-profit foundations and faith-based institutions.

In my own experience and interactions with healthcare leaders, I have noticed how we often take pride in and base our leadership success on the technical aspects of our work. For those of us in healthcare, this can mean the following:

• Delivering clinical care excellence
• Enabling decisive research to uncover mechanisms of disease
• Supporting drug discovery engines to address rare and deadly diseases
• Catalyzing efforts to improve public health
• Maintaining strong financials

However, this type of ‘operational’ thinking can only take us so far.

We must also strive to develop our leadership capabilities which has its own set of competencies and knowledge that can be learned and practiced. However keep in mind the adoption of these practices and behaviors may come easier to some of us than others. Effective leadership requires us to develop these critical non-technical capabilities such as emotional intelligence or EI. Differing from one’s IQ or intelligence quotient, EI is the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others. I have also come to realize leadership is both an art and a science. It is an art because the role and circumstances continually evolve and change form; thus, requiring courage and creativity. It is a science because there are certain enduring principles and techniques underpinning effective leadership.

At its core, leadership is first and foremost about setting a vision and inspiring a shared sense of purpose (a common mission) across your team, patients and other key stakeholders. The development of a compelling vision requires leaders to look into the future and anticipate where the field will be in 2 to 5 years and beyond – considering a myriad of possibilities and scenarios. Equally important is integrating diverse perspectives from those around you in refining the vision and strategy, building and supporting the best leadership team, instilling the courage to look at new possibilities which challenge the status quo, and building collaborative cross-functional work teams driven by mutual respect.

In launching a truly innovative vision, it is important for leaders to appreciate the psychology of people in their reaction to change initiatives. Typically, only a small fraction of people (~25%) in most organizations readily embrace transformational or disruptive change when it is initially presented to them. Eventually, another 50% of people will support the vision following meaningful exchange of ideas and pro-active communication. What this means is acting on a vision too quickly can result in implementation delay or failure.

To optimize success, leaders must take action on the following:

(1) Establish a compelling vision and a shared purpose (mission)

(2) Integrate diverse perspectives into your thinking from those around you

(3) Build a high-performing team of individuals with the right skills/talents

(4) Engage your team and other key stakeholders in what you are trying to accomplish

(5) Assess the capacity and willingness of your people to take risks and accept change

(6) Embrace new possibilities and explore innovative ways to make an impact

(7) Secure early support and buy-in from internal champions

(8) Start with small, early successes to show tangible results

During my tenure as president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, I learned all of this the hard way. Upon reflection, these and other leadership strategies might have helped to ensure earlier success as we launched a new paradigm in goal-oriented research and collaboration (Cancer Moonshot initiative), drug discovery (Institute for Applied Cancer Science), and a national and global network expansion (Global Academic Program). While each of these programs ultimately experienced measurable success, insufficient or poor communication and engagement of key stakeholders early on hampered progress and implementation.

Looking back, I now realize both my successes and failures were driven by an urgency to defeat cancer and an openness to high-risk innovative solutions. While these tendencies resulted in having a positive long-term impact, mistakes were made in the process. Through it all, the recognition of my shortcomings and strengths combined with my desire to learn has provided me with an opportunity to improve as both a leader and person.

Perhaps my most important message for those in leadership roles, or those aspiring to lead, is to be consistent and true to your core purpose of why you exist. This purpose must be genuine since authenticity is an essential quality of all successful leaders. For me, in all my roles, my north star has been a desire to heal – placing the health and well-being of patients and the public ahead of all other interests or priorities. Much of my learning has come from listening to and appreciating different perspectives, receiving candid and constructive feedback from those around me, reading books about the struggles and successes of great leaders, participating in executive and management development programs, and surrounding myself with role models and mentors to guide me.

In particular, the “servant-leader” philosophy and set of practices espoused by Robert K. Greenleaf resonates deeply with me and aligns well with my values. Greenleaf shares that leadership is about serving others and putting their needs and interests before oneself. I couldn’t agree more. To whom much is given, much is expected. Embracing this “servant leadership” approach combined with the personal loss of my father to cancer has shaped my focus and influenced me the most in how I conduct myself as a leader.

I am convinced the cultivation of excellence in healthcare leadership is one of the primary ways we can move forward in addressing the global healthcare challenges facing us today. Great leaders seek out and engage with diverse stakeholders across different cultures to effect positive change beyond their organizations. Forging collaborative relationships and establishing dialogue with faculty at different academic institutions, with peers at leading healthcare organizations, with innovators and technology leaders, with policymakers in different countries, and with corporations will help expand our global impact and move us from a disease-care (treatment-focus) system to a health-care (prevention-focus) system.

Along the way, I have also learned leadership is not a popularity contest. At times, tough decisions are needed. As one of my mentors counseled me – a leader seeks not the applause of the multitudes but only the approbation of those who are great. Thus, an effective leader must have the courage to take on risk and fail, work diligently to communicate a vision and encourage feedback, make the hard decisions to advance an organization’s purpose, and put the mission of saving lives ahead of specific interest groups and our own personal agenda. Working in our own silos without a coordinated and strategic roadmap of where we are headed becomes a disservice to those we are ultimately trying to serve.

We must continue to challenge ourselves and bring the same vigor to developing our leadership competencies as we do in pursuing and staying on top of our subject matter expertise. Only then can we maximize our own potential, the potential of those around us, and develop the next generation of healthcare leaders. We must always look ahead and not rest on previous accomplishments. We need to continually strive for leadership excellence in order to make a truly meaningful difference and contribute on the local and global stage.

In the end, leadership simply put is about bringing out the best in ourselves and the best in those around us so extraordinary things can happen.

Other Articles in the Leadership Series:

Leadership Series 1:
Striving for Excellence in Healthcare Leadership

Leadership Series 2:
Mentoring Matters

Leadership Series 3:
Achieving Success as a Biotech Leader

Leadership Series 4:
Developing and Leading High-Performing Healthcare Teams

Leadership Series 5:
Leading in a Turbulent Time

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