Most healthcare leaders have graduate degrees. Their rigorous coursework and years of study prepared them for a journey that, theoretically, helped them to become good leaders in an industry where the quality of leadership can mean the difference between patient safety and harm, life or death.
The other night, on a long flight home, I sat across from a well-known hospital CEO. As we waited to board, he told me he was working on a speech about leadership. After the cabin service was complete, and the lights dimmed, he took out his work, including a book. It was not some tome on the latest crazy fad on leadership, but the Bible. At first I thought he had changed his mind about working on the speech. “There are some great leadership themes in this book,” he explained when he saw me glance over. At first I was a little surprised but as the flight wore on, I thought about my own recent readings as well as a sermon that I had listened to a few weeks earlier. The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who has been ranked as one of the best homilists in the Christian faith, spoke at the Duke Chapel on the grace of good works. Her sermon helped me reframe and refocus my thinking on leadership and the responsibilities leaders have to those they serve.
Drawing on Matthew’s Gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount, the Rev. Ms. Taylor highlighted Jesus’ words: “You are the light of the world.”
These are such powerful words in any context, as both inspiring and as a call for serious introspection. For me, they provided an easy shift to an important theme in life and in business: CEOs are the light for their organizations. When leaders ascend to the top position, they bring with them their gifts. When they are appointed, they are given, in effect, a metaphorical light bulb, or as the Rev. Taylor called it, the “t-shirt before they even run the race.” What they do with that gift — the wattage they expend to illuminate the room — is really up to them, she said.
Sadly, some CEOs don’t really get it, that leadership is not all about their authority of command and control. To be honest, this approach takes very little wattage and the operating results are usually fairly dismal, from mediocre quality of care and patient safety to an anemic bottom line. The light from these CEOs can barely illuminate a broom closet. I would also be willing to bet that these leaders are not really fulfilled with their jobs.
Then there are CEOs who understand that their role is not about their authority and power over others but the example they set for their organization, the wattage they invest in powering that leadership light bulb for others. They go all out and the light they produce shows to everyone not only the way forward but who they are, not just as a leader, but as a person. That level of transparency is so important in these times of uncertainty and transformation.
Being talented, knowing how to run a hospital, how to be a good steward, is not going to be enough in the future, my seatmate said. “I am leading a big complex organization over which I cannot exert much control day in and day out. I have to focus my energy on leading in a way that will inspire people to follow, to care passionately about our values, what we are doing and how we do it – quality and safe care every day, with every patient. No exceptions. Policies and procedures will not guarantee that.”
He is right. It takes so much more, something in addition to the title and all the trappings of being the boss — the corner office, all the perks and financial incentives. There are many CEOs who are paid extremely well, work in beautiful offices with the support of legions of executive assistants, who fail miserably.
The leaders who expend the energy to maximize the wattage in their light bulb — their leadership gift – will create an environment that is so much better for everyone around them. To paraphrase from Matthew’s Gospel, happy are those who live and work near you. Happy are those who share the world with you.
That is what the guy across the aisle believes.
© 2022 John Gregory Self