Servant Leadership – Asking Questions, Not Giving Answers

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Servant Leadership – Asking Questions, Not Giving Answers

Servant Leadership is alive and well among effective Lean leaders in Europe.

This past week I had the good fortune to give a presentation on “Preventing Physician Burnout” at the 3rd Annual Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit Europe in Brussels.  It was a great meeting with 300+ attendees from 17 countries all committed to transforming health care delivery with Lean.  Mine was one of twelve breakout sessions covering a wide array of Lean issues.

The plenary sessions included four inspiring presentations by CEOs of large health systems:

  • SummitPatrick De Coster, MD, from CHU Dinant Godinne, in Belgium
  • Johnny Van der Straeten from University Hospital Antwerp, in Belgium
  • Marianne Griffiths from Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in the United Kingdom, and
  • Martin Lund from Mental Health Services, Capital Region of Denmark.

Servant Leadership in the C-suite

As they presented their stories, one after another, it became clear that they share two common and important traits of Lean leaders – humility and a commitment to go to the gemba.

They have the humility to know that, even as CEO, they don’t personally have all the answers to the problems in their institutions.  They know that their people do.  And they have the wisdom to recognize this and lead in a different way.

What is this different way of leading? They go to the gemba:

  • To observe the work of their staff,
  • To ask questions and deeply understand the problems they face, and
  • To ensure that the staff have the support and resources they need to solve those problems.

They don’t go to find problems, chastise the staff for the problem, or impose a solution of their own.   They practice Servant Leadership. 

The American Hospital Association and Physician Burnout

On Friday, I also had the opportunity to present a webinar for the American Hospital Association on Physician Burnout and the CEO’s role in reducing the incidence and impact.  I was joined by Diane Shannon, MD, MPH, my co-author of Preventing Physician Burnout: Curing the Chaos and Returning Joy to the Practice of Medicine

Among the 115 attendees, a common concern was the potential negative impact of Lean on burnout.  They asked great questions, such as.

  • “If physicians are already exhausted and cynical, won’t Lean’s focus on increasing productivity just make matters worse?” and
  • “What should CEOs do to address physician burnout?”

The relationship between physicians and hospital administration is often contentious and lacking respect. CEOs are struggling to keep their hospitals on stable financial footing. As they enact policies to reduce expenses, physicians experience a reduction in the support they need to provide quality care. If the focus of a Lean transformation is productivity, it will make matters worse.

Respect for People is Key to Servant Leadership

On the other hand, if the CEO’s focus is on the Lean principle of Respect for People, rather than on productivity, the impact is just the opposite.  Respect for People is a key attribute of Servant Leadership.

By going to the gemba and observing the challenges physicians face trying to take care of their patients, CEOs can:

  • Experience the reality of the barriers and frustrations that physicians deal with every day
  • Demonstrate to the physicians that the those in the C-suite actually care about the physicians’ challenges
  • Improve relationships and build trust between administration and the medical staff

All of these are key to addressing the drivers of burnout. A leader going to the gemba is one of the best ways to demonstrate Respect for People. It is the first step in addressing the drivers of physician burnout, and will accelerate the progress of a Lean transformation.

Do you practice Servant Leadership?

Are you going to the gemba regularly?

If so, what have you experienced? How has it changed you?

Please share your comments and thoughts.



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