Is Being a Health Care Leader Really Worth It?

I received another call this week from one more colleague who informed me he was retiring early from his leadership role. This made me think again about a question I am frequently asked as I travel around the country coaching and mentoring members of leadership teams, and making presentations to large and small health care organizations: 'Is being a healthcare leader really worth it?' Physicians, in particular, ask me: “how I got to the CEO position in my career” and, “if I had to do it over would I take the same path?” I am sure the reason why these questions are entering the minds of many people today is because of the time and energy it takes to be a successful leader in this complex health industry is enormous.

This reality is evident by the short life that CEOs have in healthcare, particularly in large systems where their tenure averages between 5 and 7 years. Although some transitions are being forced by the Boards, I am finding that many are voluntary because the leaders are feeling enormous stress both at work and at home, and are unsuccessful in balancing their personal and professional lives.

For me, the answer to this critical question which I am asked frequently during my now over 44 years in healthcare leadership roles has always been a resounding YES! Because I believe that some leadership skills are innate, and others must be learned, I made sure that annually, at least, I did a personal evaluation of my competencies, and also sought input from peers and superiors, as to their observations of my leadership. Based on this input, I was able to identify areas for improvement, and either attend formal training courses to fill the voids, or seek coaching and mentoring from those I thought were more competent. I think this continuous assessment and learning process is critical, for when I speak to leaders who are thinking of “retiring”, I find that most do not feel confident that they have the leadership skills today to lead the transformational strategies for success. Self-confidence is the critical foundation for a strong leader, and without such, success is doomed.

Most leaders also find part of their worth is generated by their belief that they are truly making a difference in the environment in which they are working, not only for themselves, but more importantly for the patients, and employees. A considerable amount of the leader’s day is spent in the workplace on professionally related activities. If at the end of each day, each week, or each year, the leader does not feel he or she has led a team which has made things better and implemented solutions to address major challenges, then the enormous time and effort spent will often be seen as wasted. Having a continuous sense of adding value is critical for a leader to sustain their enthusiasm for their day to day work and to go home feeling it was worth it.

A third important reason for finding worth is knowing that you, as a leader, have the ability to train other leaders that hopefully will be even more successful in a shorter period of time than you were. This is one of the important legacies and critical contribution of leadership which parallels the number of team members he or she is training, coaching, and mentoring. Developing educational opportunities for future leaders should contribute much to the feeling of worth for leaders today.

A final supplemental question I have been asked is whether or not I have found the physician leadership role dealing with administrative matters to be as satisfying as the clinical leadership roles I have engaged in throughout my career? Clearly, before taking on a demanding leadership role, I needed to pause and reflect on whether or not leaving a full-time surgical practice and transitioning to physician leadership administrative responsibilities was a good idea. I decided to make this move, believing that although I was improving the health of each individual that I operated on in my clinical role, as a physician leader I would be improving the life of communities of people. I continue to believe that both professional tracks are important, but I am even more content today with my decision over 40 years ago for I know that physician leadership today is even more critical than it was when I started down this road.

So in closing, my advice to people who are pondering the questions, “Should I consider moving from a clinical role to an administrative leadership role?” and “Will it ultimately be worth it?”, my answer is very simple---- follow your heart and do what you believe you will enjoy, have the competencies for, and where, at the end of the day, you truly believe you are making a difference for the communities you serve. And, while on the journey, make sure your are doing your very best to balance your personal and professional life. I believe, if you follow this advice, you will always be able to answer with a resounding “YES” that the journey was worth it! This is my hope for each of you.

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