WANTED: 800-pound gorilla who looks good in a business suit and has multiple other animal-like characteristics to run small, wonderful hospital on the coast of Maine.
Sometime later this year, I will step down as the interim CEO of Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, and turn the helm of this small but feisty ship over to a permanent captain. Seventeen months as the CEO there has taught me that many of the characteristics of a great CEO can be found in the animal kingdom.
Take ants, for example: If you bebop to work each day with the song “High Hopes” about the ant moving the rubber tree plant filling your head, hospital CEO may be the job for you. If an idea that seems like the right thing to do but impossible by most standards just whets your appetite, you are more qualified to run a hospital than if you have a Harvard MBA. This job requires and rewards indefatigable optimism, and endless persistence, so Eeyores just can stay home with Pooh, and sleek cheetahs that can run at 70 miles an hour but tire after a quarter-mile need not apply.
It takes an eagle to be a hospital CEO, a leadership creature who wants to make his or her hospital soar in the updraft of your inspiration. A good hospital wants to be great, so it wants a CEO for whom good patient care is not good enough, a team’s goal to be top-notch is never reached, and slowly driven improvement is not driving enough. The job takes someone who wants to be able to stand in front of the hospital and honestly say, “We are simply outstanding at what we do,” and would send family there for care without hesitation. A hospital that knows all of this says, “If you don’t want us to fly, don’t apply.”
The ideal CEO would be a rhinoceros that runs like a gazelle and has the neck of an owl. The job requires a hide so thick you can take slings and arrows without having your ego pierced, and won’t change direction simply because someone intent on your head as a wall trophy stands in your path. You need feet so swift you can outrun the competition and everything else that has your hospital in its cross hairs, and a head that can swivel about 360 degrees to keep an eye out for trouble and opportunity in all directions.
On the other hand, a dog applying for the CEO job should be a cross between a Labrador retriever and a Doberman with an antisocial personality disorder. No kid should have a loving Lab more loyal to him than you are to your hospital. If your fierce protection of the interests of your patients, staff and organization does not make a drooling, snarling, snapping junkyard guard dog look like a lap poodle by comparison when the need arises, be the CEO of a junkyard instead. In a hospital, the people who work for you, and the communities and patients you serve, need to know you will fight tooth and tail for their interests in this dog-eat-dog world of American health care.
At the same time, you must be willing to lead them where you think they should go even when they think your idea should be road kill. Sometimes you must try to convince the other penguins it’s time for a march across Antarctica. A CEO cannot let her hospital community fail to move ahead just because the way forward is ob-scured by a blizzard of contradictory opinion, options, facts and risks, or because some will be lost along the trail, or because the current status seems “copacetic.” Health care is an ever-changing world; the faint of heart and short of fortitude need not apply to lead hospitals through the constant journeys of change necessary to provide care for a community over the long haul.
Finally, the best CEOs have integrity that makes them stand out like giraffes on the Serengeti, love people, and run hospitals where it’s a thrill and privilege to be part of the team. That’s all a tall order, but wonderful work worth doing well.
Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region. He is also the interim CEO at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.