Here’s a thought that goes against the default thinking of most leaders: Increasingly, it’s more important not to lead than to lead. Strange as it may at first sound, in a highly uncertain world it’s an important thought to understand and embrace—that is if your goals include adaptability, innovation, and creating lasting value. To help you get there, let’s begin with a story.
Peter Pronovost is a name you might not immediately recognize, though when you hear his resume you begin to feel you should. Pronovost began his career as a surgeon. Early on, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the honor often referred to as the Genius Award. He’s played leading roles at top-tier medical schools, business schools, and schools of public health—an impressive and rare trifecta of sectors. Currently, he’s Chief Clinical Transformation Officer at University Hospitals in Northeast Ohio, a title that by itself hints at something more—about the job, about Pronovost, and about how he leads. But all of these accolades really began by learning how not to lead. And with a checklist.
As part of the research for my second book focused on creativity and innovation, I was lucky enough to speak with Pronovost, along with nearly 70 other MacArthur winners. In our conversation, we spoke about that checklist—an insight, a powerful tool, and as it turned out, a means of flipping the traditional view on leadership on its head. Pronovost’s checklist was made famous by another MacArthur, Atul Gawande, in his bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto. But it’s the story of how the checklist came to be that matters much more.
As Pronovost told me, the checklist was the result of a problem, a leadership problem. In medicine, not unlike countless other industries, the person with the top title is regarded not just as a leader, but leader-as-hero. The surgeon in the operating room is a consummate example. Typically, he or she makes the calls, leads the action, is regarded as the central problem solver—you know the storyline. We all do. Subconsciously at least, Pronovost knew this as well. It wasn’t arrogance, so much as it was just walking in the leader shoes cobbled together by the habits of countless leaders before him. It wasn’t until a parent of a patient who had died asked him about his lack of leadership that Pronovost began to awaken to the limits of traditional thinking and training about how to lead.
The short version of the story goes like this. Pronovost was at an event where he was being lauded for his work and the many lives he’d saved. The parent was at the event, and in a Q&A exchange asked the all-important ‘missing question’: What about my child? Why did you not save my child’s life? Success as the leader suddenly felt less. It struck Pronovost hard. How could victory as the leader be declared or even celebrated if people were still dying? The message hit harder when he and his team discovered that the majority of the deaths were resulting from the simplest of things being done wrong or overlooked altogether—infections due to lack of proper preparation in a surgery room, poorly executed everyday procedures, and other things assumed to be obvious and covered but that weren’t. The hardest truth was that it wasn’t a case of nobody knew. The nurses and some of the junior staff knew. But they had been trained not to question the leader, not even to speak up when they saw something awry, or saw a possibility for improvement. Really it was worse. They had been never been trained to lead.
Pronovost’s solution was to step out of his assumed role as leader-of-everything, and put those other people in charge, the ones who knew and indeed often knew better. From that point forward, before any of the fancy work in the O.R. got the green light to begin, his nurses and staff were given full power and authority over the checklist of the basics that had to go right for the overall odds of success to be as high as possible. This idea—of sharing the lead, of spreading the opportunity and the responsibility to create, question, and master the skill of leadership to everyone—was something Pronovost would go on to apply across the entire medical community in which he worked at the time—the hospital, the medical school, other departments, even partnering organizations outside the immediate community, all of it. Because without that kind of shared leadership, lives could be lost. That’s how many tell the story about Pronovost, the checklist, and how it spread into a powerful idea–many, just not Pronovost. When he tells the story, he doesn’t cast himself as the heroic leader. As he puts it, he was a part of the collective effort to find, refine, and evolve a shared purpose—to help people live and live well, a tall order that only a leadership culture made of the many not the few can fill.
But back to our story: It is now undeniable. We—not just those with the titles, but all of us, live and work in uncertain and complex times. It is impossible for any one person to even understand it all—from the volatility and ambiguity caused by a global pandemic, to the ways that technology, long overdue changes in diversity and inclusion, and even where and how work gets done are changing the face of leadership. Suffice it to say that to even have a chance of navigating all of this, let alone to thrive in such an environment, leadership must be shared. Leadership must be allowed and expected to move across the organization, not in a temporary and token way, but in an ongoing strategic way. The sooner leaders embrace this truth, not just in word, but in deed and action, the sooner we raise the likelihood of thriving in this new abnormal.
Written by Larry Robertson. Have you read?
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