silhouette of one person walking while others follow

US thinker offers refreshing take on leadership

A good leader is like a sports coach. They need to trust that people want to do well. Nobody joins a sporting team in the hope of failing.

So claims Paul Levy, one of the US’s most innovative CEOs, who is currently sharing his expertise with students and staff and Victoria’s wider health community through a three-month Thinker in Residence program at Deakin University.

“It is important that leaders enhance people’s ability to do their job, rather than spending a lot of time telling them what to do,” said Mr Levy.

Now a senior advisor at negotiation consultancy firm Lax Sebenius LLC, Mr Levy’s visit is being supported by Deakin’s Faculties of Health, and Business and Law, the Geelong Medical and Hospital Benefits Association (GMHBA) and the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority (VMIA).

He is former President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre (BIDMC) in Boston – a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School and a major US player in biomedical research. At BIDMC he gained acclaim as a progressive and innovative leader, with achievements including helping hundreds of staff keep their jobs by crowd sourcing ideas to save money during the recession of 2009.

Mr Levy also established his reputation for outstanding leadership through overseeing the “Boston Harbor Cleanup” as Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, through which he coined the term Nut Island effect to describe a phenomenon of systemic management breakdown.

Professor Brendan Crotty, Executive Dean of Deakin’s Faculty of Health, said the University was “delighted to have attracted a Thinker in Residence of this calibre.”

“Mr Levy’s experience in building research teams, hospital management and clinical governance is very valuable for Deakin, Western Alliance Academic Health Science Centre, and our health service partners,” Mr Crotty said

He noted that one highlight of Mr Levy’s visit will be a one-day workshop held in late February on “Clinical Leadership” that will be conducted for staff of the Medical School and Deakin’s affiliated hospitals. The workshop will focus on negotiation skills and will include presentations from Medical School staff on their leadership challenges, as well as discussion about the School’s Master of Clinical Leadership program.

Mr Levy added that he was enjoying engaging with Deakin and the Victorian health community.

Wherever he has travelled he has “seen great and terrible examples of leadership,” but he believes the most effective leaders are those who are “more like a coach than anything else – who want to empower and encourage staff to call out problems when they see them and be creative.”

“A leader is most effective if he or she acts as if they have no authority, enabling people in the organization to reach a consensus, rather than prescribing a particular result. Leaders need to be careful to respond positively and with encouragement when they hear criticism because staff quickly get the message if that is not the case.”

He noted that the health care industry seems to have its share of unhealthy work environments, where quality of care can be compromised, and problems tended to be systemic, with leaders needing to “be hard on the problem, but soft on the people.”

“In a number of health systems, the solution is to help governing boards do their jobs better and have a very clear understanding of the guidelines they need to follow. In this industry, if they don’t, the consequences can be death. Of course, when a hospital is running well, you don’t notice it because it is expected.”

Mr Levy was an early adopter of social media and writes a regular blog, now called “Not running a hospital,” with well over 10,000 followers. He has written several blogs about his observations of Australia since he arrived.

“If you are in a leadership position, why wouldn’t you use the communication tools you have to help explain to people what you are trying to accomplish?” he said.

“Blogging does not take a lot of time, compared to the amount of time you spend on the phone, and you can reach a much wider audience.”

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