We’ve been working with a CEO and his strategy team around their health system’s five-year strategic plan. It’s still early in development, and they’re considering some bold moves. Given that some of the ideas are disruptive, he astutely observed they needed to bring a clinical leader into the process before the strategy is fully developed, but he’s having trouble identifying the right physician to be part of the very small executive working group.
We began listing the important attributes, creating a rough job description for a “clinician strategist”: the ability to consider clinical and operational implications but not get bogged down in details; bold, big-picture thinking and a willingness to take risks; strong communication and leadership skills.
As the list grew longer, we began to wonder if we were really telling the CEO to chase a unicorn. Some of the characteristics that typically make for an outstanding clinician—reliance on data and evidence, lower risk tolerance—might conflict with embracing disruptive change. Much of strategic decision making is about finding “80-20” compromises, while doctors often tend to get bogged down in detail (for good reason) and are quick to poke holes.
And our ideal physician strategist, out of a desire to safeguard patient care, might sometimes find that the strategy team isn’t adequately considering the ramifications for quality and safety. Finding a physician leader who also has the skills of a chief strategy officer is indeed a rare thing. It’s probably a better bet to identify early-career doctors who have the right mindset and an interest in strategy and help them develop their leadership skills over time.
Regardless, this CEO’s instinct was correct. Bringing doctors into the strategy-setting process early is crucial, even if the perfect clinician strategist might prove difficult to find.
What makes someone extraordinary? As a retired FBI agent with more than 40 years of studying human behavior and performance, no question has captivated me more.
Extraordinary people have a wisdom and way of being that inspires and commands respect. They energize you with their wisdom and empathy. You want them to be your friend, neighbor, co-worker, manager, mentor or community leader.
The 5 traits of extraordinary people
Surprisingly, the qualities that make these people stand out aren’t related to their level of education, income or talents (say, in athletics or art or business).
As it turns out, based on thousands of observations, there are five traits that set exceptional individuals apart from everyone else — but you must have the entire set, and not just one or a few.
I call them “The Five Domains of Exceptional People”:
Self-mastery brings out your best in whatever you do through dedication, curiosity and adaptability.
Usain Bolt, the fastest human to ever live, didn’t achieve that status merely through athletic ability. He achieved it through self-mastery: He learned, sacrificed, worked hard and remained diligently focused. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, did the same.
But another side to self-mastery is knowing our emotions, strengths and, more importantly, our weaknesses. By understanding ourselves, we know things like when others should take the lead, when today is not our day or when we need to confront our demons.
Start attaining self-mastery by asking:
- What areas need attention?
- What knowledge, training or skills will help me pursue my goals?
- What can I do now to initiate change?
- How can I better myself through books, mentors, organizations, video tutorials or online classes?
We’re taught to look, but not to observe. We look to see if we can cross the street safely or what supermarket line is moving the fastest. It’s a passive experience that’s useful, but may not provide complete information.
Observing, on the other hand, is active; it requires effort, but the results are more enlightening. It’s about using all our senses to decode the world in real time for a more informed understanding of our environment and of others.
By working as an FBI agent and as an ethologist, I’ve developed my sensitivity for reading the needs, wants, desires, concerns and preferences of others — all crucial information for understanding and communicating with people.
The most observational people have a skill set that many lack. They instantly know:
- What they are seeking and whether there may be multiple explanations.
- How context and/or culture factors in.
- How they can validate their observations and conclusions.
- How to prioritize, separating the inconsequential from the essential.
We communicate constantly. Do it right and people will adore you. Do it wrong and you create doubt, indifference, even anger.
Exceptional communication skills elevate the quality of your relationships. It’s not about communicating perfectly, but rather effectively — and that builds trust. Here’s how:
- Address emotions first. We cannot think or communicate clearly until emotions are dealt with. This is where reading body language is helpful.
- Build rapport through caring and kindness. It can be verbal or nonverbal: a wave or an outstretched hand to acknowledge or welcome. Mirroring your companion’s gestures goes far.
- Be prompt. Answering emails and calls promptly shows that you value others. Bad news shouldn’t be delayed, nor should gratitude and affirmation.
- Listen to validate. Listen not only for what is said, but also in what order and how often certain words are mentioned. Repetition of a topic, for example, can shed light on unresolved or underlying problems.
Our actions are the nonverbals that show who we are, what’s important to us and how we feel about others.
You can’t fully master this trait without the previous three: Self-mastery prepares us for possible actions to take based on what’s happening; observation allows us to understand the situation in context so we can act appropriately; communication allows us to give and receive the information and support to act.
Exceptional individuals weigh four major factors when making decisions:
- Do my actions build trust?
- Do my actions add value?
- Do my actions positively influence or inspire?
- Do my actions benefit others?
5. Psychological Comfort
Psychological comfort is a state where our biological and emotional needs and preferences are met.
It forms the bedrock of our mental and physical health, driving everything from our relationship choices to the brands we buy. We thrive when we have psychological comfort, and it’s especially essential in difficult times.
Since we’re primed to receive psychological comfort, it doesn’t take a grand gesture — it just takes the right one. It could be a calm voice, a kind word, an acknowledgment, a thank you note, a welcoming smile or suggesting a break.
Psychological comfort is where self-mastery, observation, communication and action join forces, helping you recognize and provide what best reduces unwanted emotions like stress, fear or apprehension.
It’s simple: In the 21st century, whoever provides the most psychological comfort wins.
A recently retired health system CEO pointed us to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which indicates that leading an organization through an industry downturn takes a year and a half off a CEO’s lifespan.
It’s not surprising, he said, that given the stress of the past year, we will face a big wave of retirements of tenured health system CEOs as their organizations exit the COVID crisis. Part of the turnover is generational, with many Baby Boomers nearing retirement age, and some having delayed their exits to mitigate disruption during the pandemic.
As they look toward the next few years and decide when to exit, many are also contemplating their legacies. One shared, “COVID was enormously challenging, but we are coming out of it with great pride, and a sense of accomplishment that we did things we never thought possible.
Do I want to leave on that note, or after three more years of cost cutting?” All agreed that a different skill set will be required for the next generation of leaders. The next-generation CEOs must build diverse teams capable of succeeding in a disruptive marketplace, and think differently about the role of the health system.
“I’m glad I’m retiring soon,” one executive noted. “I’m not sure I have the experience to face what’s coming. You won’t succeed by just being better at running the old playbook.” Compelling candidates exist in many systems, and assessing who performed best under the “stress test” of COVID should prove a helpful way to identify them.