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What Doesn't Kill You

When I took over the leadership beat at HealthLeaders, I expected to hear a lot of success stories. And I have. I talk to some of the top leaders in healthcare from some of the most successful and progressive organizations in the United States. These people lead the field when it comes to quality and transparency, innovative staffing solutions, physician relations, and engaged boards. These are Baldridge winners, HealthGrades stand-outs, and winners of our Top Leadership Teams in Healthcare award.

The big surprise, though--and a prevailing theme in my interviews--is that often the best success stories have also had the worst failures. Take Chuck Stokes, president of North Mississippi Medical Center, whom I interviewed for this month's cover story. Two years ago, his emergency department was filled with unhappy patients and disgruntled staff. Rather than cover it up, Stokes took out a full-page ad in the local paper to tell people about his ED's failures--and promise to improve.

This level of honesty flies in the face of what many leaders (not to mention marketing departments) might recommend; like ashamed parents, some CEOs will only tell you their organization's rosy story without mention of the weeds. But it's the failures as much as the successes that have made some hospitals among the best in the country. No matter the size nor the structure of the system, successful organizations overcome their failures with accountability and transparency.

That thought reminds me of a presentation I heard at Harvard University's annual Quality Colloquium last summer. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor and teamwork expert, presented her findings on the relationship between teamwork and errors in hospitals. Like most of us, Edmondson assumed that better teams made fewer mistakes. She was surprised to discover, however, that hospitals with well-led, cohesive teams actually had higher error rates. These teams weren't actually making more mistakes--they were just more open about reporting them.

Sure, recognizing success is important. But there is much to learn from failure, too. So rather than worry about downplaying your organization's shortcomings, try a more achievable goal: Admit and learn from your mistakes.

-Molly Rowe

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