What's the cornerstone of effective leadership?
When asked this question recently by a young doctor, my thoughts turned to George Burns. "Sincerity," he quipped. "If you can fake that, you've got it made."
The joke packs a hearty punch. But it turns out that such cynicism is simply untrue in the workplace. Sincerity is actually one of the pillars of effective leadership. I've learned this from four decades of experience as a physician leader at some of the best academic medical centers in the country, including Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
Burns' remark (it's also been attributed to Groucho Marx, among others) took on special urgency in recent months as I put the finishing touches on a new book that tries to capture the essence of great leaders: The Best Medicine: A Physician's Guide to Effective Leadership (Springer, 2015) My co-author, USC business professor Dave Logan, and I distilled leadership into its core principles. One of these is authenticity.
While researching the book, Dave and I had the chance to talk in detail with large numbers of leaders in medicine and related industries. Nearly everyone agreed that most people can easily detect insincerity, particularly when managers' words and behaviors do not reflect what they really think and feel.
Virtually everyone also agreed that being genuine is the key to successful communication. Whether in business or in personal relationships, the only way to prosper for any period of time is by being honest and upfront. As I've learned in my own medical practice, I can connect with others only if my words and deeds reflect an inner truth as well as my intrinsic personality and style. For me, that often means listening first and speaking second, after I've heard what others have to say.
There are, of course, many other models of effective communication. Apple Inc.'s legendary and sometimes irascible founder, Steve Jobs, found his communication niche in carefully staged group presentations anchored by his enthusiasm for the technology he conceived. Jack Welch, the fabled chief executive of General Electric, was most effective in small-group sessions in which he delivered his down-to-earth message of individual accountability directly to managers and other employees.
Both of these business executives picked formats that matched their personalities and allowed them to express their most genuine selves. Both shared another quality that is essential for effective leadership: optimism.
The importance of a positive attitude in work and life cannot be overstated. Perhaps that's why so many scholars have studied this characteristic. One 2004 inquiry examined the dispositions of nearly 1,000 men and women between the ages of 65 to 85 and found that those who described themselves as highly optimistic lived longer than those who were pessimistic. The impact remained in place even when cardiovascular risk factors and other health measures were taken into account. "A predisposition toward optimism seemed to provide a survival benefit in elderly subjects with relatively short life expectancies otherwise," the authors wrote.
A positive outlook, of course, does not guarantee longevity. Some people with dark temperaments live longer and enjoy more achievements than those with sunny dispositions. This knowledge requires us to temper our expectations and realize that the most successful individuals are able to balance the tension between the positive effects of optimism with a healthy sense of caution and even pessimism at times.
This balancing act is a notable feature among effective leaders, who are charged with setting the right tone in the workplace. An optimistic tone, even amid difficult circumstances, can turn a staff in a productive direction, just as a sour manner can demoralize workers.
In the final analysis, the job of enlightened leaders is to empower large numbers of people to practice their crafts in the most meaningful ways possible. Authenticity and optimism are keys to this aspiration -- a lesson that holds special meaning in healthcare. As I've learned, effective leadership can translate into more satisfied doctors and nurses, with better outcomes for patients. That's one measure of success we can all champion.