The Characteristics That Make a Great Leader in Health Administration

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Hospital CEO shaking hands with doctors and medical staff

Major systemic changes often come with uncomfortable upheaval—something the health care industry will need to get used to for the next several years. After all, health care systems in the United States are undergoing significant structural changes that will only continue to intensify over the coming decade. With roughly 11,000 baby boomers aging into Medicare every day, health care costs are skyrocketing. In fact, 2015 was the first year in which health care spending in the United States surpassed $10,000 per person, according to Forbes. In response, health care organizations are being forced to find ways to offer higher-quality care at lower costs.

Which health care institutions are most likely to push through challenging times such as this one and end up on the other side stronger than ever? Those that succeed will be helmed by strong, flexible, and inspiring leaders. Health administration leaders who fit this description will be best-equipped to drive effective change through their organizations from the ground up—and to raise leaders who will continue to evolve their organizations in the challenging years to come.

“Leaders need to be inspired to help develop future leaders,” says Dr. Barry Ewy, a pharmacist, attorney, and health administrator who teaches in Ohio University’s Master of Health Administration program. “Someone else is going to take the reins eventually, and if we really care about the organizations we’re leading, we want someone to build them better than even we were able to build them.”

Dr. Ewy adds that health care administration leaders eager to set up their organizations for decades of success would do well to develop four central characteristics:

  • Good communication

Leaders must be able to clearly and effectively communicate criticism, praise, and specific plans of change to everyone within their organizations—a task as difficult as it is essential. Unfortunately, Dr. Ewy says, many leaders persist in their roles for years as poor communicators without ever realizing that weakness. For people at the top, it can be all too easy to blame organizational breakdown on anyone and anything other than their own shortcomings—and few leaders have subordinates who will call out poor communication when necessary.

  • Self-awareness

“Most leaders rose to that position because they’re very self-confident,” Dr. Ewy says. “But that doesn’t always come with self-awareness.” The good news is that confidence doesn’t always have to translate into willful ignorance of what one’s weaknesses might be. The best leaders acknowledge that they simply don’t know what they don’t know, and they strive to address their blind spots and weaknesses. To work toward a useful balance of confidence and self-awareness, try paying attention in the moment to how you react when you receive (or even perceive) negative feedback. If you discover a reflexive defensiveness, sit with a few useful questions: Why do you think you reacted that way? Might there be something helpful buried in an otherwise-uncomfortable message?

  • Focus on developing a culture of candor and feedback.

Work cultures emanate from the top. Leaders help to determine (whether wittingly or not) whether their health care organizations thrive on candid feedback or shudder in the face of it. When it comes to health care organizations embracing change, members of personnel need to feel able to offer kind and constructive feedback, with the good of the organization in mind. Leaders can encourage this type of culture by modeling what it looks like to encourage feedback—both critical and positive—and receive it well. They can institute regular meetings between workers and their superiors in which both parties are encouraged to constructively comment on each other’s performance.

“As a health care administrator, the benefit of candor and feedback is that when you’re willing to listen and have open dialogues, you receive feedback on processes that may not be as strong as you think they are,” Dr. Ewy says. “An administrator who’s not willing to listen is more likely to institute an ill-advised policy and fail to realize that it’s ineffective.”

  • Ability and willingness to change

Candid communication means that both leaders and their subordinates understand the processes organizing their workplaces. A great leader will go a step further and strive to improve these processes. With the capacity to test and analyze must come the willingness to adapt and change.

For example, if a hospital CEO institutes a new system to cut down on infections acquired by patients in her hospital, not only must she strive for buy-in from personnel, clearly describe the new system, and encourage feedback on its viability, but she must also make sure measures are in place to accurately track the new system’s outcomes against the established baseline. The whole hospital may feel good about the new system and its abilities to carry it out—but without this last step, the health care leader wouldn’t be going far enough.

Cultivating these characteristics as a leader is, admittedly, more difficult than it may first appear. Leaders with these attributes must be flexible, humble, skilled, and trusting. But that shouldn’t be discouraging, for the exciting future of health administration will demand nothing less of its leaders.

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An advanced degree program for health care professionals aspiring to enhance leadership skills, the online Master of Health Administration from Ohio University is designed to foster your confidence and insight to make a positive and lasting impact on the organization in which you work.