Businesses flourish thanks to the contributions of great leaders. Within healthcare, skilled leaders motivate staff to work at their highest potential to benefit patients, their colleagues, and the organization as a whole.
Nurse managers, doctors, and health administrators supervise teams and daily operations, but they may or may not be natural leaders. What makes certain people stronger leaders than others? Do you want to be a great healthcare leader? This article examines leadership in healthcare and identifies the characteristics and skills you will need to fulfill these roles.
What Characteristics Make a Healthcare Leader?1
When considering how to best prepare for a leadership role, it’s essential to look beyond just what you have accomplished. How did you accomplish those things? How did you treat your colleagues in the process? Excellent leaders make a difference to their whole organization by exemplifying the following qualities and traits.
1. Showing Humility2
True healthcare leaders do not think of themselves as above others. Rather, they understand the inner workings of their team and recognize everyone’s contribution. Leaders admit when they don’t have all the answers, showing respect and genuine appreciation of their colleagues by asking questions and listening to their perspectives. In turn, their team members reciprocate this trust and respect.
2. Having Vision
To positively influence and successfully lead a team, healthcare leaders must be visionaries who see the big picture and set ambitious goals. By maintaining focus on their vision, leaders guide their team to make progress on their patient and business goals even when they are simultaneously pulled in several directions.
3. Acting as a Mentor3
Good leaders are good mentors. They share their knowledge and experience with their counterparts and act as role models of the organization’s culture. Along with personally advising their staff, mentors can also make an impact on a healthcare student’s professional development. Healthcare leaders make the effort to communicate with their mentees, providing support, connecting them with resources, and helping them define their career goals.
“It’s my goal to be a mentor or clinical instructor to someone who wants to work in this field, and help guide them to be the kind of PT they want to become.”
—Chloe O., DPT student at USAHS
4. Demonstrating Integrity
A good leader knows their inner values and acts in alignment with them. This makes them trustworthy—not only to their colleagues but also to their patients. Honesty with patients means doing what you say you’re going to do, and this integrity helps to foster a healthy relationship with everyone.
5. Valuing Collaboration
Great leaders value teamwork. They understand that an interprofessional work environment, where clinicians across disciplines work as a team rather than in silos, is correlated with better patient outcomes.4 Collaboration helps clinicians agree on the best possible approach to treatment and communicate better during patient handoffs.
Leadership Styles in Healthcare5
In an article in the Oman Medical Journal, Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Sawai explains that most theories of leadership were developed for business settings and later applied to healthcare. Given that healthcare systems are large organizations composed of many departments, groups, and specialties, leadership should take advantage of their multidisciplinary team and put their diverse skills to work providing the best patient care.
With this in mind, Al-Sawai suggests that the following leadership approaches can be adapted into healthcare settings to optimize management in large organizations.
This type of leadership involves strong communication with coworkers to help them make their own informed decisions. Collaboration is both a cooperative and assertive process in which administrators and clinicians work together to meet the organization’s goals. As a healthcare leader, you must be the first to model collaborative behaviors, such as motivating and encouraging teamwork between practitioners across disciplines.
Transformational leaders emphasize a sense of mission, and they empower others to achieve it together. They communicate their vision with the team in a way that motivates performance beyond expectations, where everyone shares their insight and works with a collective purpose.
Sometimes leaders are forced to make tough decisions for the organization that may seem to favor some staff members at the expense of others. In the midst of these challenges, an effective healthcare leader must act from a grounding in ethics, treating each staff member with fairness and respect.
When gaps in communications develop between practitioners, conflict can arise. In these situations, an effective healthcare leader finds a way to work out conflicts and create a positive outcome. This can include incorporating strategies of compromise, mediation, negotiation, and enhanced communication to resolve issues and restore harmony.
Essential Skills for Healthcare Leadership6
It takes a unique set of skills to become a leader in the healthcare industry. Successful leadership can help you transform a struggling team into an effective one. Developing the following soft skills for the workplace can help you become a true healthcare leader and better contribute to the team. In an article for the Journal of Healthcare Leadership, an analysis of effective leadership in healthcare summarizes the following essential skills.
Listening and learning are vital. One way to embody an effective leader is to strengthen your communication with colleagues and patients. Effective communication in nursing and other healthcare professions establishes trust between you and your patient, improves patient satisfaction and reduces medical errors.7
Emotional intelligence, also known as “emotional quotient” or “EQ,” is the ability to understand one’s own emotions and those of others and respond in constructive ways. A leader with a high EQ sets the tone for the whole team by modeling empathy, improving communication, and de-escalating conflicts. In situations of discord, leaders ensure that their responses aren’t emotionally over-reactive, instead using their empathy skills to understand the other party’s perspective. This helps maintain respect all around.8
Leaders must apply their problem-solving skills to make good decisions under pressure. Especially in healthcare, leaders need to stay composed during crisis situations, maintaining the flexibility to think creatively and take decisive action when traditional measures are not effective.
A good healthcare leader understands the importance of time management skills to maintain productivity and patient care. When multiple tasks become urgent, leaders know what to prioritize and when to delegate them to another team member.
Finally, leaders must be willing to adapt to new situations. In a complex industry where external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic can upend business models overnight, flexibility helps leaders pivot when necessary and stay on track to meeting the organization’s goals. Technological advancements continue to transform healthcare; good leaders both embrace and adapt to these changes.
The Future of Healthcare Leadership
As the healthcare industry grows, so does the demand for more leaders. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of medical and health services managers is projected to grow 32% from 2019 to 2029.10
This growth in demand, plus constant technological advancements, should spur facilities to cultivate leadership skills among their staff through development training and career advancement programs, as discussed below.
Recruitment and Leadership Development Training
As healthcare technology advances, staff may feel pressure to keep up. One way to ensure your smooth transition into a leadership role is through training programs. In a study on leadership development, most participants who went through training agreed to feeling more confident, capable, and empowered in their roles to lead others. In their efforts to provide coaching and constructive feedback, organizations can establish career mentoring programs, encourage staff to attend conferences, and support their continuing education.
Career Programs in Healthcare Leadership
Another way you can develop leadership skills is by earning your graduate degree in a field such as health administration, within a program offering specializations in executive leadership. The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers graduate degree programs for clinicians and health administrators looking to improve their leadership skills, better understand healthcare policy, and advance their careers. The following programs focus on leadership development for healthcare professionals:
- Master of Health Administration
- Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
- Master of Health Science
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (PPOTD)
- Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy (tDPT)
If it’s your goal to pursue a leadership role within your organization, explore the degree options above to identify which is right for you. Healthcare leadership roles provide numerous opportunities to make a positive difference for your colleagues, patients, and work environment.
USAHS offers a Master of Health Administration (MHA) program designed for working healthcare professionals who want to improve systems of finance, informatics, operations, policy, and other key functions of healthcare organizations. The program is taught online, with optional on-campus immersion weekends (scheduled to resume in 2022) and an optional internship. Whether you choose the traditional or accelerated track—or our specializations in Executive Leadership, Business Intelligence, or Interprofessional Education—you will gain real-life experience and expand your professional network. During your capstone project, you will work with an industry mentor.
- Carol Huston, “What Defines A True Leader in Healthcare?” Today’s Wound Clinic, September 2018: https://www.hmpgloballearningnetwork.com/site/twc/articles/what-defines-true-leader-healthcare
- Derek Feeley, “Health Care Leaders: Heroism Is Out, Humility is In,” Institute for Healthcare Improvement, March 29, 2018: http://www.ihi.org/communities/blogs/health-care-leaders-heroism-is-out-humility-is-in
- Joellen Hawkins & Holly Fontenot, “Mentorship: the heart and soul of health care leadership.” Journal of Healthcare Leadership, 2010: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229005278_Mentorship_the_heart_and_soul_of_health_care_leadership
- Scott Reeves et al., “Interprofessional education: effects on professional practice and healthcare outcomes (update),” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, March 28, 2013: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD002213.pub3/
- Abdulaziz Al-Sawai, “Leadership of Healthcare Professionals: Where Do We Stand?” Oman Medical Journal, vol. 28,4, July 2013: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3725246/
- Charles Hargett et al., “Developing a Model for Effective Leadership in Healthcare: A Concept Mapping Approach.” Journal of healthcare leadership vol. 9 69-78. 28, Aug. 2017: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5774455/
- The Joint Commission, “Inadequate Hand-off Communication,” Sentinel Event Alert, Sept. 12, 2017: https://www.jointcommission.org/-/media/tjc/documents/resources/patient-safety-topics/sentinel-event/sea_58_hand_off_comms_9_6_17_final_(1).pdf
- Jeanne Segal, et al, “Improving Emotional Intelligence (EQ),” HelpGuide, last updated July 2021: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/emotional-intelligence-eq.htm#:~:text=Emotional%20intelligence%20
- Shalini Nayak, “Time Management in Nursing—Hour of Need” International Journal of Caring Sciences, Dec. 2018: http://www.internationaljournalofcaringsciences.org/docs/72_nayak_special_11_3_2.pdf
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Medical and Health Services Managers,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified June 2, 2021: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm