What It Takes to Be a Leader in Healthcare

Because labor costs typically consume 50 to 60 percent of a hospital’s operating revenue, less-than-stellar leadership can have a significant impact. “Healthcare organizations represent a system of processes, people, and other resources that must be led effectively to achieve the desired outcome of high-quality, safe patient care,” writes Carol J. Huston, a nursing leader and nurse educator.

While healthcare leadership encompasses a number of diverse roles, the functions of healthcare leaders usually include planning and overseeing healthcare services in compliance with laws and regulations while striving to improve quality and efficiency, often with the assistance of new technologies. “Effective leadership,” notes the blog of Advent Health University, “has been positively associated with increased patient satisfaction and lower rates of adverse health results.”

Leadership roles in healthcare include population-health leader, patient-safety leader, patient-experience leader, change-management leader, staffing/scheduling leader, in addition to C-Suite positions like Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Learning Officer (CLO), Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO), Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), Clinical Department Manager, and Chief Quality Officer (CQO).

Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected healthcare more than any other industry and has required an adaptive leadership style. Writing for the New England Journal of Medicine’s Catalyst site, physician Kevin Lobdell and his co-authors assert that the healthcare system is not well structured to address a pandemic in an interconnected and interdependent world. “Prioritizing engaged leadership, and emphasizing a more team-oriented approach to care delivery and collaboration across institutions,” Lobdell et al write, “will improve systems in the short-term, and ultimately, set conditions for long-term change.”

The pandemic is not the only leadership challenge healthcare leaders face. Tim Flanagan of HealthCare Recruiters International also cites revenue outpaced by spending, increasing regulations, demand for new levels of quality and cost transparency, a surge in non-traditional competitors, expansion of population health, and rapidly changing technology.

Preferred Background: Education and Experience

Because leadership roles in healthcare are diverse, no typical path of education and experience exists, but for the top leadership role of hospital CEO, a Master of Health Administration or Hospital Administration degree is common, along with at least eight years’ experience in administrative, healthcare, and management positions, notes the University of Scranton’s page on executive-leadership strategies in the medical field.

Desirable Characteristics

An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in healthcare leadership. Comprehensive resources on competencies in healthcare leadership include the Healthcare Leadership Alliance Competency Directory, downloadable as an Excel spreadsheet, Leadership Competencies for Health Services Managers from the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), and the Health Leadership Competency Model from the National Center for Healthcare Leadership (NCHL). Additional leadership characteristics include the following:

healthcare leadership skills table

Predominant Leadership Styles in the Healthcare Industry

Researchers have found that simply deploying a leadership of any kind has a positive effect in healthcare. Danae Sfantou and co-authors write of their research, “Leadership styles were found to be strongly correlated with quality care and associated measures,” going on to document associations between individual styles and positive outcomes: “Transformational and resonant leadership styles are associated with lower patient mortality, while relational and task-oriented leadership are significantly related to higher patient satisfaction.” The researchers found increased patient satisfaction closely related to transformational, transactional, and collaborative leadership.

Bhagyashree Sudhakar Joshi studied 41 healthcare leaders, learning that they used 10 leadership styles (autocratic, democratic, bureaucratic, laissez faire, paternalistic, transactional, charismatic, transformational, visionary, and coaching) to some extent, with the majority adopting a democratic style. Joshi concluded that hospital leaders should adopt a mixed leadership style.

While many healthcare experts like Joshi argue for a mix of leadership styles, others promote one specific style as most appropriate for the healthcare field. Victor Trastek, Neil Hamilton, and Emily Niles make a case for Servant Leadership in an article for the Mayo Clinic. “Servant leadership [is] the best model for health care organizations because it focuses on the strength of the team, developing trust and serving the needs of patients,” the authors assert. Tony P. Ospina touts transformational leadership, noting that “transformational leadership is not a ‘cure all’ remedy for the current issues in healthcare, but it addresses many common challenges that are faced.” Similarly, scholars Alenka Žibert and Andrej Starc point out that “transformational leadership is often associated with greater efficiency and positive organizational results, and consequently achieves a higher success rate of change.”

Resources

These excellent guides to leadership paths in the healthcare industry are available:

Beverly Harvey, an executive career coach and job search strategist for senior-level and C-level executives, is passionate about identifying her clients’ unique talents, crystallizing their brand, articulating their value proposition, and creating dynamic marketing materials and job search strategies to achieve a successful landing. She is the author of the book "Landing An Executive Position" and has contributed to 23 career books. >>>Certifications include: *** Credentialed Career Manager *** Certified Career Management Coach *** Certified Job & Career Transition Coach *** Reach Certified Personal Branding Strategist *** Reach Certified Social Branding Analyst *** Certified 360Reach Analyst *** Certified Executive & Leadership Development Coach *** Certified Job Search Strategist *** Certified Social Media Career Strategist *** Certified On-line Identity Manager *** Master Resume Writer *** Certified Professional Resume Writer

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