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By Sarah C. Threnhauser, MPA

As we prepare for The 2017 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, which is taking place here in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the end of the month, we’ve been talking to a lot of executives about the many leadership challenges they face in our current market. Through these discussions, I’ve come to one overwhelming conclusion – change is a game for which many executives simply aren’t prepared to win.

A quick scan of the health and human services field is sure to find a lot of scenarios forcing executives to reconcile with new market challenges – from value-based contracting, to new performance reporting requirements, to population management expectations, to care coordination…and the list goes on. To succeed, it is not only the strategy, the organizational structure, and the team that needs to change – the leader needs to change as well.

I was reflecting on this need for fundamental change from leaders when I read To Win the Civil War, Lincoln Had to Change His Leadership, in the Harvard Business Review. The authors suggest that executives need a three-part leadership framework in challenging times:

  1. Leaders manage the present, anchoring in purpose and values.
  2. Leaders selectively forget the past, letting go of old values, beliefs, and behaviors that no longer serve them or their organizations.
  3. Leaders purposefully create the future by adopting new aspirations, values, beliefs, and behaviors that enable a step-change in their leadership.

The first and third are easier leadership skills to acquire, but I think the “letting go” part is a challenge for many executives. Many of the “values, beliefs, and behaviors” of leaders in health and human services are being challenged – and this create a personal tension within their position. Here are some of the common questions our team hears every day in our work:

  1. Should there be “competition” in health care?
  2. Can “machines” do therapy?
  3. Do you need to be in the same room with a consumer to establish rapport and assess their needs?
  4. Should provider organizations be the point of rationing in our health care system?
  5. How much does “the consumer experience” and “customer satisfaction” matter in health care? (In a recent meeting, I heard a physician describe their organization’s marketing executive as the equivalent of the “activity director on a cruise ship”)
  6. Are health care services delivered by for-profit organizations as good as services delivered by non-profit organizations?
  7. Do computers make better health care decisions than clinical professionals?

I think that the dissonance with these fundamental issues creates challenges for leaders in moving their organizations forward.

The HBR authors illustrate the challenges – and the potential – of this three-part leadership framework using the example of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. They are not alone in their observations; over the years, much has been written about the relevance of Lincoln’s leadership philosophy to today’s executives. In particular, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, includes some lessons that I think are particularly relevant to today’s health and human service executives: Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and your ideas by building the best possible team – this includes people who have different perspectives, experiences, and management style. Learn how to manage stress and recharge your energy so that you have the ability to withstand and thrive on the challenges ahead. Finally, encourage debate and discussion among your team about the important issues affecting your organization.

For more on challenging your leadership style, check out these resources from The OPEN MINDS Industry Library:

  1. What Do Today’s Leaders Think About Managing Change?
  2. Creating and Leading A Team in Times of Change
  3. Don’t Just Sit There: Change!
  4. Managing Change as a Leader’s Challenge
  5. Managing at the Speed of Change: What Does It Take to Be Nimble?
  6. 6 Management Best Practices For Sustainability In A Changing Market
  7. Planning For Turbulence – A Case Study
  8. ‘Suspend Everything You Know’
  9. The Leadership Success Checklist For Uncertain Times
  10. Understanding The Four Essential Types of Leadership

We will to continue this Lincoln leadership case study on September 26 at The 2017 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat with a featured session by award-winning historian and Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer. Mr. Holzer is a winner of the 2015 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize; has has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books; and one of his essays on Lincoln was featured as part of the official program at the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama. For a preview of the session, “You Were Right & I Was Wrong: How Abraham Lincoln Owned His Mistakes, & Accepted Responsibility, As An Ideal Leader,” check out these podcasts with Harold Holzer – Lincoln As I Knew Him / Harold Holzer and Conversations with Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer.

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