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Reflections on Leadership: Lessons from a Seasoned Healthcare Executive


Maureen Ruddy shares her thoughts on how to lead with empathy.

“I've learned that people will forget what you said,  people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. 

I first heard this quote from my boss at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in 1989. It’s attributed to both poet Maya Angelou and theologian Carl Buechner. Regardless of its origin, the phrase resonates because most of us have been on the receiving end of both outstanding and poor leadership.  

Over the course of my 40-year career, both as a hospital administrator and a medical practice executive, I’ve been fortunate to work for and with some exceptional people, and maybe more importantly, I have experienced or witnessed a few destructive “leaders.” What distinguished them was not the revenue they generated, the savings they found, the growth in partner income, the new locations opened, the rebranding success, the merger, or being a great negotiator. What separated the two was how they made people feel. 

In my experience, the leadership ingredients that create goodwill among colleagues, and more importantly, subordinates, fall into several buckets: 

Compassion: This is easy. We’ve all experienced difficulties in life so it’s natural to summon compassion when a team member hits a rough patch with their health, a marriage, the loss of a loved one, a troubled family member etc. A good leader will, of course, reach out to console someone in her immediate circle of responsibility. A great leader will reach across the organization to console—outside their ‘chain of command’ or several levels down their chain of command. It’s the practice CEO who contacts the remote billing employee to tell her that she’s sorry her favorite aunt passed away. 

Compliments: This is easy too, although it comes more naturally to some leaders than others. Depending on your personal experience growing up and in the workforce, a good leader may have to exercise this muscle a bit to learn how to deliver a sincere and meaningful compliment. A meaningful compliment goes beyond ‘good job’ and includes a specific element of the work that made it exceptional. A great leader will find an opportunity to share a compliment behind someone’s back. That tells the third party two things: 1) it was special enough to tell others and 2) you can depend on me to say nice things about you in the future when you earn a compliment. 

A footnote on compliments: Learn how to graciously accept a sincere compliment. Undervaluing your contributions is not the same as humility but can easily be confused. If you try to push off a compliment, a great leader won’t let you do that! 

Critiques: Offering constructive criticism is tough. Most good leaders hone this skill in the context of performance reviews, but I suggest that that is the least helpful venue for critiques (although necessary). A great leader will seek the right moment, which may be ‘in the moment’ or not, and will frame the feedback as “food for thought,” or “my impression was,” or “for what it’s worth, I think.” The listener must believe that the leader truly has their professional development at heart and no other hidden motives in order to accept the feedback as sincere AND feel confident that the constructive criticism will be held in trust between the speaker and listener.  

Curiosity: Generally speaking, most of us enter the workforce will little to no expertise. Knowledge is accumulated over a lifetime, and most people specialize over time. A good leader will tap into the team’s knowledge to optimize the practice. A great leader will engage with team members for the sole purpose of being curious, to learn more, and convey a genuine interest in learning what-it-takes-to-do-the-job. Not only does this add more knowledge to the leader’s brain, but more importantly, it conveys to the person that the leader cares enough to understand. We get so caught up as healthcare leaders, thinking that everything must lead to a result. Sometimes, knowledge IS the goal. 

Clowning Around: Everyone enjoys a good laugh. A good leader knows how to bring out the humor in a situation, while a great leader learns how to poke fun at themselves in a way that resonates with the team. Everyone carries insecurities, and when a great leader acknowledges a shortcoming, that authenticity makes people feel grounded. And when a subordinate can poke gentle fun at the boss and everyone laughs, well that’s a good place to work! 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not “all about the feels,” leaders get things done. But I don’t care if you’ve built a rocket ship, separated conjoined twins, or commanded an aircraft carrier—people won’t remember only that you did those things competently. They WILL remember how you made them feel along the way.  

Who do YOU remember? What will your legacy be? 

The opinions and views expressed in this blog post belong to and are solely those of the individual author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Curi Advisory or Curi Advisory’s parent or affiliated companies or their members, insureds, clients, customers, or partners.