Of all the books on leadership I've read, two of the best are by Max DePree, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Herman Miller Co., a billion-dollar furniture manufacturer based in Zeeland, Mich.
The books, Leadership is an Art and Leadership Jazz, describe the essence of what leadership is all about -- treating people with dignity and respect. DePree makes it quite clear that successful leaders are "cheerleaders" and mentors for their colleagues.
Although there is growing evidence that an attitude like DePree's pays off with increased productivity and performance, a lot of so-called leaders have no idea what that responsibility entails.
Among the other reading on leadership that I've done recently was an article in the Harvard Business Review. Authors Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie described what they call "adaptive challenges." Heifetz is director of the Leadership Education Project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Laurie is managing director of Laurie International, a management consulting firm in Boston. The article was based in part on Heifetz's 1994 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers.
Heifetz and Laurie emphasize the need for leaders to know the right questions, not necessarily the right answers. They cite six principles of adaptive work for forward-thinking leaders.Get on the balcony. Leaders must develop the ability to objectively look at their businesses as if they were sightseeing, to see the big picture of their organization's mission and direction.Identify the adaptive challenge (a key element that could change a company's direction or culture). For example, if a company hasn't put much emphasis on customer service, building customer trust could be just such a challenge.Regulate distress. In other words, make sure too much change doesn't raise stress levels and lead to low workforce morale.Maintain disciplined attention. Leaders must make sure that all points of view are given a fair hearing in an effort to find a workable consensus. Jan Carlzon, the legendary former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines System, made this observation: "The work of a leader is to get conflict out in the open and use it as a source of creativity."Giving the work back to people. Leaders need to empower colleagues and let people do their jobs in a confidence-building environment. The authors note that when Carlzon assumed the top job at SAS, he took such symbolic actions as eliminating the executive dining room and burning thousands of pages of manuals and handbooks containing rules and regulations. He "made himself a pervasive presence, meeting with and listening to people both inside and outside the organization."Protect voices of leadership from below. This takes courage on the part of management. Individuals -- outside the leadership circle -- who come up with new ideas or criticize the way things are done must be protected from retribution and given the opportunity to express themselves.
So it appears the strength and resilience of any company resides not in the executive suite but with the people who work in the organization. That message is simple but profound, and all healthcare leaders must understand it.
Be there when they need you,
Charles S. Lauer