For years, I’ve devoured books on leadership and business management. Ken Blanchard, Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, Peter Drucker, Jon Katzenbach, Kim Scott, Tom Peters, Sheryl Sandberg, Peter Senge, Sun Tzu, Fred Wiersema and many other business and strategy gurus became my literary mentors through the decades.
Though the perspectives they imparted were valuable, my greatest teachers have always been my colleagues and clients. Their questions, encouragement and pushback made me think and feel, and desire to be better. They firmly solidified my belief that empathetic leadership is what opens hearts and minds and inspires us to be greater together.
They have been extraordinary teachers, and when extraordinary people unite, incredible things can happen.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives,” says Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah knows that leadership is not about control; it’s about encouraging others with a shared vision to join in an adventure together. Real leaders invite people with different talents, skills and backgrounds to become part of a like-minded community of purpose.
And real leaders know that the bond that creates that strong community is strengthened through kindness and transparency. It’s not enough to work hard. We also need to play nice.
Creating purpose driven communities is the first step
More than ever, the health sector needs expansive leaders who dedicate their communities’ energy and skills to breaking down the walls that keep out new ideas. Too many life-enhancing innovations are delayed from reaching people because the sector has become structured over time to resist change; too many of its leaders have forgotten that patients need to be at the heart of the health system.
If the ecosystem’s leaders were able to rapidly adapt to the emergency of COVID-19 and pivot their companies’ directions within days, why can’t they embrace and act upon the essential change of putting patients at the center of everything they do?
C-SUITE titles may dazzle — do they deliver?
Do not let titles fool you. We have seen too many who hold impressive titles demonstrate that they are not true leaders, but rather gatekeepers. They do not invite, encourage or rally people to a common cause. They wait to see who will act first, watch how people respond and then make calculated moves to reduce personal and organizational risk.
The Harvard Business Review offers a summary of leadership skills that need to be adopted and honed through practice:
– Shape a vision that is exciting and challenging for your team.
– Translate that vision into a clear strategy outlining what actions to take and what not to do.
– Recruit, develop, and reward a team of great people to carry out the strategy.
– Focus on measurable results.
– Foster innovation and learning to sustain your team and grow new leaders.
– Lead yourself, know yourself, improve yourself and manage the appropriate balance in your own life.
Ken Frazier is a textbook example of daring business leadership. Now executive chair of the Merck board of directors, Frazier, during his tenure as Merck’s CEO, returned this drug innovation giant to a high standard of medical innovation and global regard. Yet, it was his singular courage in resigning from former President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council that led to his being cited as “America’s Moral CEO.”
While almost all other CEOs on the Council followed his lead, only Frazier will be remembered for his bold, out-in-front stance against racism and extremism. People forget earnings per share — they remember ethical moves that set the tone for what leaders should do: unite with purpose.
There are others whose bold moves may not receive the level of attention of Frazier’s, yet they also deserve note. When Vesper Healthcare Acquisition Corp. CEO Brent Saunders was chair, president and CEO of Allergan, he published a “social contract” tying his company’s pricing to the cost-of-inflation index in response to pricing abuses by Turing Pharmaceuticals and the Mylan EpiPen.
While some may say Saunders’ social contract fell short, his bold leadership move compelled other biopharma companies to follow suit in setting pricing parameters. Saunders’s dramatic move had a positive ripple effect.
Leaders blaze a clear for others to follow
In 2014, Larry Merlo, then president and CEO of CVS Caremark, announced his massive pharmacy retail chain would cease selling tobacco products at its locations. Merlo recognized that the sale of tobacco products was simply inconsistent with the health care chain’s purpose: helping people on their path to better health.
It seemed like a commonsense move for a company that sells prescription medication and wellness and personal care products, but it was courageous. Merlo led the way, focusing on doing the right thing with measurable, meaningful results.
Ten years ago, Amir Kalali, MD — then global head of the Neuroscience Center of Excellence at Quintiles, now known as IQVIA — convened an assembly for those dedicated to drug development and patient care. Called the CNS Summit, his big-tent forum unites erstwhile competitors in a collaborative effort to identify and support much-needed, novel, patient care solutions.
When Quintiles was acquired and Kalali left to pursue another path, he continued to build his open-minded community, promoting the idea that innovation requires continuous learning and a readiness to nurture new leaders. Summit remains the meeting ground for life science leaders who aspire to do more within their companies and forge industry partnerships.
My greatest teachers are the thousands upon thousands of people with urgent health needs who step forward to share their stories and struggles. Some facing overwhelming odds continue to express hope that cures are close at hand and, even if they are out-of-reach, advocate for medical interventions and innovation that will improve others’ lives.
These are the leaders that push us forward and make us realize that we must accelerate efforts to improve and sustain life. Industry colleague Craig Lipset, the co-chair of DTRA.org, reminds me that it’s not that patients should have a “seat at the table, it is their table!”
Among the many, one person embodies the spirit of patient advocacy and has become one of my go-to patient-advocacy real-life mentors; Stacy Hurt. Stacy is a long-time physician practice management leader whose career covered sales, marketing, training, operations, customer service, and human resources. However, it’s her journey on the care and caregiver side — overwhelming to almost anyone else — that calls for the health system to reorient and recognize people who have big problems and need our help. Stacy is a caregiver for her intellectually and developmentally disabled son and a stage IV colorectal cancer patient/survivor navigating a very fragmented health system that is often not patient-friendly.
Stacy has her story. But her story is the saga of millions of people with health hurdles. There is no business strategy bestseller that could reinforce the lessons we can learn firsthand from someone facing almost unscalable obstacles of a health system forgets why it exists — to help people heal and be healthy.
To be a positive force, the health sector must match its healing mission with bold leaders who espouse purpose, inclusion, empathy and integrity. And while those leaders must be attentive to their shareholders, customers, and employees, they must, above all, deliver innovation and access to the patient communities that depend upon them to thrive and survive.
Bestselling bookshelf mentors, purveyors of C-suite advice, offer an intellectual foundation for leadership. Yet, it is the school of hard knocks and those “Profiles in Courage” moments that define leaders and set their future orbit. The health industry is not lacking brilliance, but it is at an inflection point where courage and empathy are required in its leaders to spur us forward to tackle the world’s pressing care challenges.
[Special thanks to my FINN Partners colleagues Shira Friedman and John Bianchi for their review of this article and comments. We share a mission to make a difference.]