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Healthcare needs servant leaders for improvement, inspiration

February 5th, 2014

by Thomas Dahlborg

"Thank you. Thank you for being inquisitive, for asking questions, for making me want to think more deeply about X, Y, and Z. I am so grateful."

This message came from a colleague (a leader at another healthcare organization) late last fall, and it told me far more about my colleague than it ever did about me.

This leader showed gratitude and vulnerability. She led with an open mind and heart, and based on the content of our discussion, lived the traits of a servant leader--the exact opposite of an egocentric leader. And it's exactly what we need to truly adapt, innovate and improve the healthcare system to better serve our patients, families and communities.

Once I hung up the phone, I sat back, looked up, and gave thanks for leaders such as this: Leaders who are not so set in their ways, not so stuck in their own dogma or their own ego that they are open to considering new ways, new perspectives, new options, all in an effort to better their organization and those they serve.


"[C]ontrary to the myth of the 'all-knowing-all-powerful' leader, inspired leadership requires vulnerability: Do we have the courage to show up, be seen, take risks, ask for help, own our mistakes, learn from failure, lean into joy, and can we support the people around us in doing the same?" Brené Brown shared in the post "Leadership Series: Vulnerability and Inspired Leadership."

Now, perhaps it was the time of year (Thanksgiving) but my conversation above was linked to some sad news that actually led to a place of gratitude and now (the beginning of a New Year) a vision for a new beginning.

In following up this conversation, I reached out to my contact at the Joint Commission to schedule another call and learned that Jerod Loeb, M.D., executive vice president of Healthcare Quality and Evaluation at the Joint Commission, had passed away in October after courageously battling cancer for the past two years.

Loeb is another extraordinary, brilliant leader. He used his own experiences as a patient to further improve the quality of care provision. He focused on improving patient safety, set a vision for creating high reliability organizations (HROs) and much more. I was blessed to have spoken with Jerod and his team on a few occasions (and to have read much of his work), noting every experience as inspiring.

As I mindfully considered my colleague, Loeb, and the leadership required to truly make a difference, the following questions came to mind:

As a healthcare leader ...

  • When was the last time I was courageous?
  • When was the last time I was vulnerable and shared this vulnerability with my team?
  • When was the last time my team saw my authentic self?
  • How have I celebrated my and my team's failures? How have we together grown, learned and improved care provision (as another colleague calls it "failing forward")?
  • How have I taken risks in order to benefit those I am blessed to serve?
  • When was the last time I leaned into joy and brought joy to all those around me?
  • How have I led, served and supported others to do the same?
  • When was the last time I truly inspired others to achieve the mission of my organization and to serve others with care, compassion and love?

The U.S. healthcare system is profoundly broken and sorely needs the type of leader each of us can and should embody. People like my colleague and Loeb have inspired me, and I am so grateful.

Today I commit to serve and inspire others to carry on their message and to be a courageous servant leader. Will you join me?

Thomas H. Dahlborg, M.S.M., is chief financial officer and vice president of strategy for NICHQ (National Institute for Children's Health Quality), where he focuses on improving child health and well-being.


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