Traits of the Top

Maureen Larkin, for HealthLeaders Media , May 22, 2008

There was a lot of talk at last week's National Patient Safety Foundation Congress in Nashville about strong leadership and how important leadership is to an organization's mission to deliver quality healthcare. As we all know, it's easy to talk about leadership, but one session in particular offered the results of a study that looked at top performing hospitals and what they all have in common.

Barbara Youngberg, vice president for insurance, risk, quality, and legal for the University Health System Consortium, said an in-depth study of UHC's member organizations shows that top hospitals have strong leaders who share the following characteristics:

They have a shared sense of purpose. Top leaders are the first to tell you that patient care is the most important mission of their organization. They're constantly working to improve quality and safety scores, regardless of how high the scores already are. These leaders consider top-notch customer service, quality care, and patient safety a competitive advantage for their organization.

They lead by example. Youngberg said top leaders have an "authentic, hands-on style." They're not above greeting patients at the door or guiding a visitor who has lost his or her way. Leaders of top hospitals are often seen in hospital departments, talking to nurses and physicians about the challenges of their jobs. They don't just appear to be interested. They are interested.

They focus on results. Top performers are relentlessly working to improve the care offered at their facilities. They're not waiting for a new building or a new technology infrastructure to improve—their organizations are in a state of constant improvement.

They collaborate to get results. Top leaders recognize that everyone in the hospital—whether a physician, nurse, or front desk clerk—contributes to the quality healthcare experience. They appreciate the contributions of employees at all levels and often recognize those who do their job well. The result is that employees value each others' critical knowledge when problem solving.

They have an accountability system for service, quality, and safety. As I mentioned above, top leaders are "hands on," but that doesn't mean that they don't expect their department chairs to accept responsibility for their individual unit's improvement. Prioritizing, developing measures, and settings goals and targets are centralized functions, while tactics to improve are decentralized. The result? Hospital units that are accountable and innovative.

These qualities are the building blocks of top performing organizations that are consistently defining new levels of excellence in quality and patient safety, Youngberg said. How many of them do you recognize in yourself?

Maureen Larkin is quality editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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