EDITORIAL: No cookie cutter approach to leadership
Sharron Spicer, MD
As a health care leader, I have recently reflected on the fact that my leadership journey has been eclectic, not with a clear destination in mind, and not with any sort of cookie-cutter approach. In fact, my early leadership experiences were not even professionally directed. I certainly never set out on a path to be a leader in a large health care organization. Now that I find myself here, I appreciate opportunities I’ve had along the way to learn how to lead.
Volunteering has shaped my leadership. For years, I was a Girl Guides leader. Following the tradition of leaders who take on the name of a jewel or gem, I became Moonstone, a mineral that symbolizes intuition and hope. Apparently, it is linked to Cerridwen, the Welsh goddess of inspiration and knowledge — not only qualities I aspire to, but a gentle nod to my own Welsh heritage. Apparently, Moonstone can also refer to a passionate love that will fly you to the moon and back. This myth, however, has not quite yet proven itself true.
With a group of children, we focused on service to others and citizenship. We toured firehalls and dog rescues, learned campfire songs, and sold cookies. Yes — the cookies. When I was with my young charges one day at a pop-up cookie stand, they saw a nearby hot dog vendor and wanted to use the money we had in our cash box to buy ourselves a snack. I explained that the money we collected in return for cookies was used to help us pay for our activities; people bought cookies knowing that they were helping us out, like a charity.
My daughter, about seven at the time (and, even then, a human rights advocate), was incensed. “A charity! We’re not a charity. Charity is, like, for people in Africa who don’t have clean water. We’re just a bunch of kids in North America who want to have fun. We shouldn’t ask people for money.” So, much to my chagrin, my daughter took a moral stand against cookie-selling.
Many of my leadership skills developed in community organizations. Taking 20 pre-teens backpacking in bear country was an experience in planning and contingencies. In a culture that typically steers kids toward specialization and mastery at a young age, and where competition is part of many of their leisure activities, it was refreshing to encourage curiosity and discovery as we spent time in the outdoors. Seeing children gain skills and confidence as they tried new things was amazing. I discovered that helping people find their passion is the most powerful way to engage them in creating change.
Volunteering provided me with a useful reality check as well. In pediatric palliative care, my work life was filled with sorrow and loss. Getting a good dose of fun was useful medicine for me.
It seems odd to me that I received more formal training in leadership skills in my volunteer roles than I did in my medical training. Nowhere in my medical school or residency was I taught accounting and bookkeeping, but I learned these things in non-profit organizations.
Performance management is a part of leading in volunteer organizations as well. Addressing conflicts is especially important. Unlike working with others in a profession, where years of training and mentorship shape the professional identity, volunteers coming together bring varied skills and understandings. Setting expectations and giving feedback are key to keeping people working together. Expressing appreciation and showing them the results of their efforts help to keep them motivated.
I also reflect that leadership skills and experience outside of the workplace are sometimes overlooked within the profession. I’ve had physician colleagues, particularly women, whose experiences on school boards, clubs, and charities are often not considered when they apply for leadership roles in the health care environment. Yet, if we are seeking diversity and equity in our organizations, we would certainly benefit from the experiences of those who have worked with organizations that are composed of and serve diverse groups. My advice is to understand and appreciate the multiple skills that people have used in the many facets of their past experiences.
Fortunately, over the past decade, we are increasingly recognizing that medical leadership is not simply inherent in our personalities, nor achieved in the same ways that we master our clinical acumen. Rather, leadership skills can be taught and learned.
I’m pleased that in this issue of CJPL we have multiple contributors who give glimpses of teaching useful leadership skills. We have an article on enabling leadership through quality improvement. There is another on creating shared expectations of resident and attending responsibilities on call. One article describes how teaching negotiation skills can enhance the leadership skills of trainees. There is a review of SimuLEADerShip, a simulation-based learning activity created by the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, in collaboration with Global LEADS. As always, we have several book reviews of recent publications as well. I hope that you enjoy these articles.
Cookies, anyone? I might just have some in the freezer.
Sharron Spicer, MD, is associate chief medical officer for Physician Wellness, Diversity and Development within Alberta Health Services. She also practises pediatrics in Calgary, Alberta. Dr. Spicer holds the Canadian Certified Physician Executive credential and is editor-in-chief of CJPL.