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Lessons From the Military: 4 Steps to Finding Your Next Leader

December 26, 2015

leadershipI was listening to an interview of an author of a book about U.S. Military Generals. One story resonated with me as we think about building a leadership team to face the “battle” of success in a new world of value-based purchasing in healthcare. Healthcare needs to change the way we find and develop leaders – just as the U.S. military changed its approach, and found the right person to lead the Allied victory in WWII.

In the years before WWII, senior promotions in the military were based, largely, on tenure and rank. The next person “in line” advanced to leadership positions when the time came. Going into World War II, though, George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, realized that he needed not the next person in line, but the best person – in fact, the best person for very specific positions.

For instance, he realized that he needed a strong collaborator to coordinate the efforts of the allies in Europe and reached down into the ranks to quickly promote a relatively unknown Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike eventually served as Supreme Commander of the Allies. His performance proved that Marshall was an astute evaluator of talent. Marshall also recognized the many (and well-documented) faults of General Patton but knew that his ability to pursue an enemy across a continent was a particular strength – a strength that was in need and outweighed his negatives.

Marshall brought a new approach to selecting and developing leaders:

  1. Reward success.

  2. Punish failure (he did not hesitate to remove an ineffective leader). In fact, he eventually removed Patton from his command!

  3. Find new people by looking down into the ranks to identify the talents he needed.

Just as WWII brought new challenges that required a new approach to leadership, healthcare’s traditional approaches to building leadership strength need to change. For decades, margins in healthcare were strong and no one was really looking at outcomes. We could tolerate mediocre at some positions, and could survive a sloppy approach to identifying and developing talent. We could leave it to chance and shake off poor decisions. That’s no longer the case. What we need to do:

  1. Define success (it’s about outcomes and the bottom line – not just maintaining the status quo).

  2. Reward success by developing top performers and giving them new challenges.

  3. Have the conviction to move those who don’t perform or fit your vision or culture – too much is at stake.

  4. Commit time and resources to a system of identifying and developing leaders.

The military has a very deliberate and detailed system of “fit-reports” and officer training and development opportunities. Those who want to shine, have the opportunity to do so. Those who perform get better fit reports, and their superiors tell THEIR superiors to move that person up in the ranks. This allowed Gen. Mitchell to look down into the ranks and identify those with the skills his was looking for.

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Bryan Warren Bryan Warren was the former Director of Healthcare Solutions at PSI. He was responsible for developing and promoting tools and services designed specifically for the unique challenges faced by healthcare organizations.