A Pathway to Leadership

Philip A Dombrowski, MBA, FACEHP, President, Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions

As a term, Leadership has been defined in thousands of publications, and yet we are only a little closer to understanding how people lead. There was a period about 50 years ago where leadership was perceived as the golden ring, far superior to management, which was perceived as autocratic, authoritative and uninspired. Leadership became something to which everyone aspired if they wanted to become successful. Yet, we saw over time that even organizations with incredible leaders still faltered.  

Individuals far smarter than me have posited theories on leadership — transformative leadership, emotional intelligence and primal leadership to name only a few. What I can share in this article are the beliefs that have shaped my life and my career.

During my youth, I was captivated by western history and the success of important leaders —  Julius Cesar, Napoleon, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. Then, in graduate school, I became interested in inspirational and successful business leaders; for example: John D. Rockefeller, Robert Wood Johnson, Joseph Wilson and Thomas Watson Sr. (someone younger will have very different “heroes”). Then, when out and working, I followed authors and researchers of leadership theory and applicability, including Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James Kouzes and Barry Posner.

Here, I will attempt to summarize some of the guiding principles I have learned and tried to apply throughout my career. I have attempted to write something that was practical and would have meaning for a CPD professional at any stage of their career. You will be the judge if I’ve been successful. 

Enjoy What You’re Doing

Long before thinking about getting into management or leadership, the first important contributor to success is finding a job or a profession in an industry you can believe in. I think we are lucky to be working in the healthcare field. It’s hard to succeed when you aren’t doing something that you enjoy, something that energizes you, something you’re passionate about. If you have all of that in your current job, you’re very fortunate and probably ready to start thinking of becoming a leader there and/or in your profession.

Find a Good Leader to Mentor You

This is often easier said than done. First, in order to find a mentor who will want to mentor you, you must have been successful in your current job and with your current employer. A great mentor wants to help individuals who are contributing to the organization and who others see as having a future within the organization and/or the profession. It’s important to get this first step right. If that can’t happen for you in your current organization, maybe you should think about changing jobs, or maybe even question if this is the job and the career path for you. If you are successful, find someone you respect and who you think is a good leader, and ask that individual to mentor you. You will be surprised how many times these individuals will say yes.

What Makes a Good Leader?

Like I said in the introduction, leadership as a discipline and subject of study has been around more than 50 years; as a topic of interest, it’s been around for millennia. Warren Bennis, in one of his earliest books on leadership, said, “Managers do things right while leaders do the right things.” Notice he didn’t say that leaders exist at only the highest levels of an organization. He said they do the right things and that is because good leaders are more strategically oriented and can exist at all levels of an organization. 

Leaders also tend to be innovators or early adopters, and, as a result, tend to push themselves and their departments and organizations. As such, they are liable to make mistakes. A successful leader didn’t get to that level because they were one of the very and fortunate few who never made a mistake during their careers. No, they probably made some mistakes. Some may have even cost them their jobs or delayed their upward progress. But what they had was the resilience to bounce back from failure and defeat and to learn both from their mistakes as well as their successes. To my way of thinking, successful leaders are constantly learning.  Warren Buffet says he reads constantly and a lot (on average, 5 to 6 hours per day); he is a consummate learner and one of the most successful financial investors around today. 

What other characteristics do successful leaders possess? I believe successful leaders must be caring and show a genuine interest in their direct reports. Some may believe that even more crucial is the ability to get results. I, too, believe this is important, but getting great results is all about empowering people, and a leader can only do this if they care about their direct reports. 

In a pivotal leadership book on emotional intelligence, author Daniel Goleman wrote, “At its root, the primal job of leadership is emotional.” Great leaders have the interests of the larger organization at heart as well as the backs of their staff members. What I’ve always believed is that a leader who truly cares about his/her people is someone worth following. This alone, though, is not the sole mark of a leader; the person still needs to demonstrate leadership.

What are our subordinates or others in the organization looking for from a leader? First and foremost, they want someone who can be trusted — someone who will do as they say. A leader must also be calm, and this is a learnable skill.

Early in my career, I had an associate who was told that in order to be promoted, she needed more seasoning. This didn’t sit well with her and many of her colleagues. At her going away party, several of her friends jokingly gave her salt and pepper shakers as going away presents — we wanted to accelerate her seasoning. Now, much later into my career, I realize that the advice she received was actually very good. She (as well as all the rest of us) needed to be tested in several circumstances to see how we handled multiple adversities, failures and successes. Could we be trusted? Would we be calm in these situations? Would others still want to follow us? 

This doesn’t mean a leader cannot ever feel frustrated, bitter, angry or disappointed — these are normal emotional experiences we all feel from time to time. The difference in a great leader is only in how that leader handles these emotions. One can manage (note, I am using manage and not lead) by being loud mouthed, obnoxious and maybe even offensive. But, does anyone really want to follow this individual? In today’s world, people like working for someone who is supportive. Oftentimes, I’ve found it is the attitudes of the individual that separates a leader from a manager. 

Leaders are also solution oriented. A department or an organization is not looking for an individual who can only spot a problem and say, “There’s a problem.”  A successful department needs someone who can also identify things to do about the problem. Offering solutions is a crucial characteristic of a successful leader. And the beauty of this is it is a characteristic that also can exist at all levels of an organization. You don’t have to have the title Director or Vice President to demonstrate your abilities to solve problems. If you think that’s the task of someone who is making more money than you are, then you aren’t thinking like a leader and you will not be seen as someone promotable to a leader position within the department. It is important to demonstrate you can think and act like a leader long before anyone is thinking of you as a leader. Any department or organization needs solution identifiers, not just problem identifiers. If you want to be a leader, you need to think like a leader.

Are you someone who tends to point out everything that’s wrong about your job or your supervisor? Are you almost never happy at what you’re doing, or that your current supervisor is demotivating? Of course, these may be indicators that you’re in a bad work situation, or it could mean that you need to take a long and hard look at yourself. 

One difficult facet of leadership that I’ve learned in my career is that leadership requires self-motivation. Think about the types of issues that are passed up in your department or organization. Chances are, the routine elements of your job are handled by you or others below you. Real challenges or difficult situations are the ones being passed up to your managers, supervisors, directors, etc. If the leaders of your department and organization are the ones dealing with the real difficult problems, who is motivating them to deal with these crises? They are undoubtedly self-motivated. 

Another quality of a good leader is being decisive. This doesn’t mean you may not need time to think about something. When the thinking is done, though, you will need to decide and live by that decision — even if it proves wrong. Great leaders deal with their mistakes, they aren’t looking to bury or hide errors or to point fingers at others. Good leaders and good managers bring clarity to situations — offer perspectives that make a situation or a challenge more understandable. Oftentimes, this includes contrasting the better good for the organization against the downsides for the individual or individuals. Leaders also bring energy to their staffs, to new ventures or initiatives and to challenges.

Often, I’ve asked myself if I’ve learned more from working for great managers and leaders or from bad managers. I can honestly say that I believe I’ve learned more from a bad manager than from a good manager. Under a bad manager, I was constantly thinking about what is wrong and what I would do differently, storing this information for when I earned that position.  However, even if you’re positive and self-motivated, working under a bad manager can be stressful, and you need to self-assess if this current situation or this employer are worth sticking around for. 

One last practical thought I want to leave you with is a quote from an old professor of mine at the University of Chicago, Harry L Davis, who said, “Leadership is a performance art. To understand it, you have to experience it. And to improve in it, you have to practice.”  That’s hard work, but in the end, it can be extraordinarily worth the effort.

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