Leadership: A Word Often Used but Difficult to Define

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Marc Leib, MD, JD

President John Quincy Adams once said that if “your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” He clearly understood the qualities that embody leadership, a word nearly impossible to define succinctly. Dictionary definitions are useless tautologies, such as “the position of a leader” or “the capacity to lead” that provide little insight into what qualities define leadership or make a person a leader.

A more cogent definition from Susan Ward, a business writer, embodies many recognized characteristics of leadership without being so broad as to become essentially meaningless. She defines leadership as “the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.” She goes on to say that “the leader is the inspiration and director of the action.” To achieve this, leaders must communicate their visions clearly to others, inspire them to act, and provide the resources necessary to make their actions possible.

There is no one right way to communicate—leaders develop their own style, shaped partly by their personalities and partly by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Words that may be perfectly acceptable in one environment may be completely unacceptable in others. Leaders must understand the constraints they are under, modify their messages accordingly, yet clearly describe their visions to those whose actions will achieve them.

Communication is only effective if it inspires others, otherwise it is only noise. Inspiration, like communication, comes in many forms but at the end of the day it must not only instill a belief in others that the leader’s vision is worth achieving, but also give them the self-esteem necessary to accomplish that goal. Getting people to believe in themselves is essential if leaders hope to accomplish their goals. President Ronald Reagan summed this up when he observed that “the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

Providing necessary resources is essential to achieving goals. No matter how committed the followers, if the leaders do not provide the time, money and materials necessary to achieve their visions, nothing of value can be accomplished. No matter how great the effort, it is impossible to build the Golden Gate Bridge out of match sticks.

In addition to a leader’s communication skills, inspiration of others, and ability to provide resources, the goals must be worthy of the organization’s efforts to succeed. Goals should be bigger than the individual leader and exciting to those whose efforts will achieve them. Success should be a challenge, not a walk in the park. Easy to achieve goals are not likely to inspire others. The ability to look over the horizon, not two feet in front of them, is what distinguishes great leaders from the managers who attend to the day-to-day operations.

Good planning is essential to achieving great goals. Leaders need not, and probably should not, develop those plans on their own. Success is a team effort that begins with developing a plan to achieve that success. The initial plan will rarely be perfect but will likely require adjustments over time. That is not a failure of the team, but evidence of its ability to react to new information and changing circumstances. The longer leaders and their teams work together, the more they are “in sync” with one another, resulting in plans that require fewer adjustments over time

Arizona physicians serve as leaders in various settings, including their practices, hospitals, state and national specialty societies, the Arizona Medical Association (ArMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA), without even considering the myriad of leadership positions they may occupy outside of medicine.

Some physicians serve in significant leadership positions in multiple settings simultaneously. Each of these requires different expertise with goals that are vary tremendously from one setting to another. However, the general principles of leadership are applicable across all these settings. The challenge for physician leaders is to identify positive qualities of leadership, shape them to their own abilities and personalities, and then incorporate them into their own leadership practices.

In one sense, the process of learning leadership skills is very similar to residency programs in which we learn medical and surgical skills from those with more experience and incorporate them into our own increasing medical armamentarium. During my 30 years as a physician I have had the opportunity to work with many leaders, each with a unique style and personality. But each of them had something I could adopt to hone my own leadership skills.

Although my career path has not been typical of most physicians, I have served in a number of conventional roles—chair of my department, President of my state specialty society, ArMA President—as well as a few less common ones such as the MICA Board of Trustees and AHCCCS Chief Medical Officer. Each one helped prepare me for the next as I borrowed leadership traits I admired from others and incorporated them into my own leadership style. That is what successful leaders do, learn skills from their mentors and adapt them to their own personalities and abilities. It is a form of the art production technique, collage – adapting bits and pieces from others and cobbling them together into one’s own unique new whole.

This brings us back to the original question, what is leadership? What exactly are those traits we should identify and incorporate into our own style? With the thousands of books, articles, essays and lectures addressing this question, it appears this is a concept that defies definition. In a 1964 case involving a movie banned by the State of Ohio as obscene, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart admitted his inability to intelligibly define hard core pornography but added that “I know it when I see it.” The same can be said of leadership. Like Justice Stewart, we are left with the simple task of knowing leadership when we see it and the difficult one of incorporating traits that define that leadership into our own practices as we strive to attain President Adams’ ideals of a leader.

Dr. Marc Leib is an ArMA past president and currently serves as chair of the ArMA Legislative and Government Affairs Committee.

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