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The Art of Leadership

October 28, 2008
by Pete Rivera
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While IT and business skills are critical, leaving leadership development off the table is a perilous long-term strategy

I entered the civilian workforce after serving 21 years as a Navy Medical Service Corps Officer. People often ask me what I miss the most and they are especially curious about how a military environment compares with a corporate organization - are they dramatically different, or somewhat similar?

In fact, there are only two strong differences that stood out for me. First, I didn't worry about what I was wearing to work; we all wore the same uniform every day. More importantly, in contrast to much of corporate America, I missed the strong leadership structure. By strong, I don't mean the stereotype drill sergeant that barks orders or salutes anything that moves. I'm talking about military personnel who stand out because they have earned the respect of their peers and the people who work for them. The presence of so many skilled leaders is no accident; it's the result of the military's methodical approach to leadership development.

Pete Rivera

Pete Rivera

The military is well renowned as a place to learn new skills and develop discipline. Technical training programs are major recruiting tools for young people looking for a career path. However, the military's professional development extends far beyond hands-on work skills to include the more complicated but incredibly important job of developing men and women as leaders. The military has implemented a formal program of teaching and mentoring that is it weaves throughout the “corporate” structure of its organizations.

Many healthcare organizations, on the other hand, inadvertently discourage the development of leaders due to insecurities within their organizational structure or fear of losing employees to other positions or hospitals.

This type of philosophy is exemplified in popular training programs such as Total Quality Management and Six Sigma, which focus on product and outcome management. Technical skills are strongly emphasized; leadership skills are minimized.

Large healthcare organizations often fill manager and director level positions externally rather than developing internal candidates.

Meetings are primarily used for project updates, issues monitoring, and budget tracking with little attention to team building and leadership development.

Employee appraisals are often tailored to reward productivity and completion of projects. The ability to lead teams, maintain cohesive working environments, minimize turnovers through high morale, and inspire motivation through example is not recognized.

For many CIOs, leadership is a soft skill, something that is not tangible and therefore does not deliver a return on investment (ROI). Of course the ROI in question is hard dollars, and what is overlooked is the cost of hiring and maintaining qualified employees.

According to the Society of Human Resource Management (Alexandria, Va.) the cost for hiring a new employee is about 38 percent of the departing employee's annual salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Washington) predicts that by 2010 we will encounter the most severe shortage of skilled workers in the history of this country. These two factors combined should wake up many CIOs to realize that retention does indeed have a hard ROI.

So why do we have such a high turnover rate in many large healthcare organizations?

Too many hospitals operate in a culture of fear. As a consultant, I often talk with employees who approach their jobs with anxiety over fear of failure, fear of job loss, and fear of being in the spotlight fordoing something wrong. This fear contributes to a climate that can best be described as abusive. These abusive environments undermine employees emotionally and physically, and contribute to absenteeism, which ultimately leads to employee turnover.

Managers at all levels can contribute to this debilitating environment by their own cynicism or misguided attempts to side with employees against “higher ups.” Managers wanting to be a friend rather than a leader affects how communication is delivered, and is an essential part of leadership and professional development.

Unthinking quips such as - “If my neck is on the line for this, then everyone's neck is on the line,” or “I hate the idea also, but if that's what the higher-ups want us to do, then we have to do it,” or “It's time for another reorganization, you better get your resume up to date” - can send shock waves across your department and become sure-fire morale busters.

I was logged in to my LinkedIn account ( which is a professional business network, and the following question appeared on its blog: Is leadership just the art of management with charisma and assertiveness?

Leadership can be an elusive term. Often, we're able to point out a leader, but we have a hard time defining the traits that make someone a good leader. That's because leadership is as much an art as it is a science. The best definition of a leader is a person who can influence and direct other people to achieve goals.

Too many organizations mistakenly believe that a leader is the person who has been placed in charge. In doing so, they fail to understand that a person given positional authority does not automatically posses the influence necessary to lead a team. The position may give a person the right to direct activities, but without the leadership skills to inspire confidence, earn respect, and foster loyal cooperation, organizational goals can be difficult to achieve.