How to become an exceptional leader

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

If there's one critical tool to becoming an exceptional leader, it's not drive, smarts or even likability. It's the ability to listen.

The second edition of the book “Exceptional Leadership: 16 Critical Competencies for Healthcare Executives” reflects research, done by authors Carson F. Dye and Andrew N. Garman, that looks at ways leaders can grow, from cultivating adaptability to developing high-performing teams. Still, there's a common thread.

“While all are important, in order to have a deeper understanding it requires strength as a listener,” Dye told me Wednesday. “It means being focused and attentive, personal conviction — all of that is tied to listening. Being creative is often correlated to listening skills.”

Good, you may be thinking: I can listen in that I don't speak over people. But there's more, warns Dye. Traps in the listening category are “hearing selectively,” as well as being impatient. Listening to avoid action also is problematic.

A good listener pays attention to others in a group when someone is talking to notice non-verbal cues, Dye notes.

“If you're running the meeting, you have to watch the whole group. Are they taking a look at their emails or messages in the phone sitting in their lap? Or are their eyes focused on the person speaking?”

If a person is droning on and on — we've all been there [EDITOR'S NOTE: Except when her editor is talking.] — the administrator can try a hand signal or say, “Hey, let's take a moment so people can share their thoughts,” he advises.

On the flip side, one tool to make the meeting go faster is to say upfront that not everyone has to have a thought about everything. In management, “there is often a perception ‘if I don't weigh in or contribute, it either means I'm not interested or important to this meeting,'” Dye says.

Another way for administrators to become exceptional is to lead with conviction. But a pitfall that can develop is overvaluing one's perspective or being overly moralistic. Dye writes of an extreme example where an administrator says, “I answer only to God,” or “This is a matter only the board and I would fully understand.” It's not hard to imagine the side-eye glance you will get if you utter either of these statements.

In addition to not saying statements like the above, there are two big ways to combat being seen as narrow-minded: One is to develop deep one-on-one relationships with employees, Dye says. By gaining a deeper understanding and principles of who employees are or why they think a certain way, it helps build the team.

The second strategy is to occasionally pause in a meeting to tell people why you feel a certain way, especially if it relates to resident care.

“Whether it's long-term care or acute care, most people are in the business because they have a certain value set that makes them care for other individuals,” he says.

Finally, one complaint common in healthcare organizations is staff who complain to a supervisor, “It isn't fair.” Dye recommends going to the heart of the issue in a way that mimics parents repeating back the reason why a child is upset. In both cases, it's about empathy.

“It may mean repeating back to [employees] specifics they are saying so that you can make sure you can understand the facts. Verify accuracy and perception,” he says. “My experience is that often the complaints about fairness is that the organization tries to treat everyone the same.”

All of these situations relate back to a deeper understanding of strengthening listening skills.

Being a good leader  “means being focused and attentive, personal conviction. Being creative often correlated to listening skills,” he says. “All of it is tied to listening.”

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN. 

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.