Perhaps The Most Important Physician Leadership Lesson from Colin Powell – “Remain Calm. Be kind.”

I’m a big fan of biographies.  I like to understand how people, mostly historical figures, view the world, solve problems and learn from their experiences. 

Colin Powell was raised in Harlem to immigrant parents from Jamaica and rose to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.  People may disagree with some of the policies as he supported in the Bush administration but his success story and character, and career as a military leader, are widely respected.

His 1992 biography, My American Journey, tells a quintessential American success story and provides insight into important geopolitical and military events.

It’s built around 13 leadership lessons from his military career.  (The book was published before his time as Secretary of State.)

I often find myself referencing some of these lessons in our work with physician leaders who may struggle applying their clinical thought processes to leadership.  His thirteen lessons:

Remain calm. Be kind

This is from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from a combat officer in Viet Nam,  who led military operations in Desert Storm.  You would not think that “be kind” would make this list but it did. 

You can impart a sense of urgency while remaining calm.  You can be demanding and firm while being kind.  Your goal is not only to get the task accomplished but to build team effectiveness while getting it done. 

Your goal is not only to get the task accomplished but to build team effectiveness while getting it done. 

Losing your cool or being unkind doesn’t move you toward those goals.  It may seem like the easiest and quickest way to get what you want out of someone, right now,  but the long-term results will be negative.

It ain’t as bad as you think.  It will look better in the morning

This is definitely NOT how physicians think, clinically.  They are called upon to evaluate and understand the situation, protect against the worst possible case then determine a course of action.  They don’t have the luxury of waiting until the next morning. 

In many instances, the best leader encourages patience and calmness,  because the situation may not be as complicated or dire as it appears.  Avoid early over-reaction and creating unwarranted and counter-productive team anxiety.

Get mad, then get over it. 

We are emotional beings.  Situations make us angry.  General Powell learned to process the anger and get over it quickly so he could think strategically and find the right solution – without letting anger poison the thought process.  This can be a challenge for physicians – particularly if they have high standards for themselves and expect the same of others.

Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls your ego goes with it.

Healthcare organizations tend to struggle with the concept of healthy conflict.  When we are working on complex problems, there will be different opinions as to the right approach.  Healthy teams know that we’ll bring different ideas and as a group we are going to identify the best solution for the organization. Often, that will not be YOUR preferred solution. 

Physicians are used to being the final decision-maker about their patients.  They can become irritated when the group doesn’t adopt THEIR proposed solution to some business/strategic challenge.  You can’t take this personally.  You can’t be angry about it or let it impact your ability and willingness to advocate for your position on the next issue.

We are looking forward to day-long workshops for the AAOS Leadership Fellows Program in Nashville in October, and for the AONL Executive Fellows Workshop in Scottsdale in Jan., 2020!

It can be done! 

Physicians are trained to identify potential problems, then to prevent or address them.  This rational, scientific approach can be invaluable when evaluating organizational challenges.  It can also lead to being perceived as constantly negative, immediately pointing out the problems with a proposed solution.

Teams need to see the optimism that no problem is too big for them to solve.  Start from the position that the problem can and will be solved – THEN objectively evaluate the problem and potential solutions, open to the idea that it may just work.  There is ALWAYS a solution.

Be careful what you choose.  You may get it.

We’ve seen physicians quickly decide what they THINK the solution is, advocate for it, but not realize the real implications – including for themselves.  For instance, if you think you have answers and want to lead – be ready for all that comes with leadership – including being responsible not only for your own success but for the entire team’s.  Leadership does not simply mean you get to make all of the decisions.

Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision

Healthcare tends to struggle with analysis paralysis and then be too quick to change course – Often because the problems and the data are complex.  But at some point, strategic and tactical decisions need to be made.  Analyze the situation.   Decide on a path.  Implement the plan. Don’t change course at the first situation that challenges that course.

You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours. 

Sometimes you can’t fathom someone else’s decision.  You’ve analyzed the situation and the solution or path seems clear to you.  All you can do is present your position as clearly and persuasively as possible and hope to convince others.  If they aren’t convinced, move on.  As a leader, this is tough.  You want to build consensus, but you have to think about the organization as a whole.

Check small things.

Clinically, physicians are great at this.  In the Board room, a lack of planning and organizing skills or desire to dig into details, can be a hindrance.  Build a team around you that’s good at, for instance, planning and organizing.  Recognize your limitations.  I know all about this one.  I hate details but force myself to attend to them or find people who will.

Share credit. 

Want to build an effective team?  Acknowledge the efforts and successes of your team.  Even small successes.  Often. Nothing engenders followership more than giving your team ALL of the credit for your success.  Do it to a fault.  Tell the world how great your team is.  The greatest measure of your success is how well you support them and make them look good.

Have a vision.  Be demanding. 

You team can do the work.  They don’t need you to tell them how to do their job.  What they need from you is the vision.  Get better at painting the picture for them.  People are moved to action by the vision, by the story. 

Being demanding and being a jerk are NOT the same thing.

Then, challenge them to realize the vision.  Set ambitious goals, be demanding but make it clear you are there to support them.  Being demanding and being a jerk are NOT the same thing.

Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

Humility goes a LONG way as a leader but at the same time, if you’ve engaged your team, evaluated the situation and decided on the course, have confidence in it.  Don’t ignore advice or feedback.  Change course when it makes sense, but don’t let your own fears, or the naysayers, over-influence you.

Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier

I love this one.  I’ve found it to be true in all settings.  It’s hard sometimes.  The challenges and complexity are substantial, but your people need confidence in the future to be an effective, cohesive team. 

Certainly, unreasonable optimism without a plan, and the willingness to do the work, will eventually be seen for what it is. But combine the vision, with competence, an engaged team, and a solid plan – then add this level of optimism – and your team has a much better chance of success.