If you are a hospitalist and leader in your health care organization, the ongoing controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act repeal and replace campaign are unsettling. No matter your politics, Washington’s political drama and gamesmanship pose a genuine threat to the solvency of your hospital’s budget, services, workforce, and patients.
Health care has devolved into a political football, tossed from skirmish to skirmish. Political leaders warn of the implosion of the health care system as a political tactic, not an outcome that could cost and ruin lives. Both Democrats and Republicans hope that if or when that happens, it does so in ways that allow them to blame the other side. For them, this is a game of partisan advantage that wagers the well-being of your health care system.
For you, the situation remains predictably unpredictable. The future directives from Washington are unknowable. This makes your strategic planning – and health care leadership itself – a complex and puzzling task. Your job now is not simply leading your organization for today. Your more important mission is preparing your organization to perform in this unpredictable and perplexing future.
Forecasting is the life blood of leadership: Craft a vision and the work to achieve it; be mindful of the range of obstacles and opportunities; and know and coalesce your followers. The problem is that today’s prospects are loaded with puzzling twists and turns. The viability of both the private insurance market and public dollars are – maybe! – in future jeopardy. Patients and the workforce are understandably jittery. What is a hospitalist leader to do?
It is time to refresh your thinking, to take a big picture view of what is happening and to assess what can be done about it. There is a tendency for leaders to look at problems and then wonder how to fit solutions into their established organizational framework. In other words, solutions are cast into the mold of retaining what you have, ignoring larger options and innovative possibilities. Solutions are expected to adapt to the organization rather than the organization adapting to the solutions.
The hospitalist movement grew as early leaders – true innovators – recognized the problems of costly, inefficient and uncoordinated care. Rather than tinkering with what was, hospitalist leaders introduced a new and proactive model to provide care. It had to first prove itself and once it did, a once revolutionary idea evolved into an institutionalized solution.
No matter what emerges from the current policy debate, the national pressures on the health care system persist: rising expectations for access; decreasing patience for spending; increasing appetite for breakthrough technology; shifting workforce requirements; all combined with a population that is aging and more in need of care. These are meta-trends that will redefine how the health system operates and what it will achieve. What is a health care leader to do?
Think and act like a “meta-leader.” This framework, developed at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, guides leaders facing complex and transformational problem solving. The prefix “meta-” encourages expansive analysis directed toward a wide range of options and opportunities. In keeping with the strategies employed by hospitalist pioneers, rather than building solutions around “what already is,” meta-leaders pursue “what could be.” In this way, solutions are designed and constructed to fit the problems they are intended to overcome.
There are three critical dimensions to the thinking and practices of meta-leadership.
The first is the Person of the meta-leader. This is who you are, your priorities and values. This is how other people regard your leadership, translated into the respect, trust, and “followership” you garner. Be a role model. This involves building your own confidence for the task at hand so that you gain and then foster the confidence of those you lead. As a meta-leader, you shape your mindset and that of others for innovation, sharpening the curiosity necessary for fostering discovery and exploration of new ideas. Be ready to take appropriate risks.
The second dimension of meta-leadership practice is the Situation. This is what is happening and what can be done about it. You did not create the complex circumstances that derive from the political showdown in Washington. However, it is your job to understand them and to develop effective strategies and operations in response. This is where the “think big” of meta-leadership comes into play. You distinguish the chasm between the adversarial policy confrontation in Washington and the collaborative solution building needed in your home institution. You want to set the stage to meaningfully coalesce the thinking, resources, and people in your organization. The invigorated shared mission is a health care system that leads into the future.
The third dimension of meta-leadership practice is about building the Connectivity needed to make that happen. This involves developing the communication, coordination, and cooperation necessary for constructing something new. Many of your answers lie within the walls of your organization, even the most innovative among them. This is where you sow adaptability and flexibility. It translates into necessary change and transformation. This is reorienting what you and others do and how you go about doing it, from shifts and adjustments to, when necessary, disruptive innovation.
A recent Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School forum on health care innovation identified five imperatives for meeting innovation challenges in health care: 1) Creating value is the key aim for innovation and it requires a combination of care coordination along with communication; 2) Seek opportunities for process improvement that allows new ideas to be tested, accepting that failure is a step on the road to discovery; 3) Adopt a consumerism strategy for service organization that engages and involves active patients; 4) Decentralize problem solving to encourage field innovation and collaboration; and 5) Integrate new models into established institutions, introducing fresh thinking to replace outdated practices.
Meta-leadership is not a formula for an easy fix. While much remains unpredictable, an impending economic squeeze is a likely scenario. There is nothing easy about a shortage of dollars to serve more and more people in need of clinical care. This may very well be the prompt – today – that encourages the sort of innovative thinking and disruptive solution development that the future requires. Will you and your organization get ahead of this curve?
Your mission as a hospitalist meta-leader is in forging this process of discovery. Perceive what is going on through a wide lens. Orient yourself to emerging trends. Predict what is likely to emerge from this unpredictable policy environment. Take decisions and operationalize them in ways responsive to the circumstances at hand. And then communicate with your constituencies, not only to inform them of direction but also to learn from them what is working and what not. And then you start the process again, trying on ideas and practices, learning from them and through this continuous process, finding solutions that fit your situation at hand.
Health care meta-leaders today must keep both eyes firmly on their feet, to know that current operations are achieving necessary success. At the same time, they must also keep both eyes focused on the horizon, to ensure that when conditions change, their organizations are ready to adaptively innovate and transform.
Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D. is coauthor of Renegotiating Health Care: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration, Second Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2011) and is director of the program for health care negotiation and conflict resolution, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Marcus teaches regularly in the SHM Leadership Academy. He can be reached at