How Great Leaders Can Fix Big Problems — Even in Healthcare

Whether it is visiting a doctor, understanding and paying a medical bill, or picking out the right health insurance plan, we can probably all agree that our regular interactions with the healthcare system are not as seamless or as easy to access as they should be. Healthcare is too hard to navigate, costs too much, and ultimately does not work well for the people it’s meant to serve — all of us.

Too often, this lapses into pessimism, a belief that we can’t improve US healthcare. At nearly one-fifth of the economy, healthcare is too big to fail — and to fix. But the truth is that there is a lot that people can change in healthcare if they are motivated to take on these seemingly insurmountable problems.

The trick is to think like a basketball team, not a track team. In the latter, runners are out for themselves, and points are awarded for individual performance. In basketball, nearly every point scored relies on the skills and effort of the whole team. Assists are as important as goals scored, and strong defense makes offensive success possible.

Creating this collaborative environment takes embracing three principles: servant leadership, connectedness through authenticity, and innovating with transparency.


Servant Leadership

First, at the heart of everything is servant leadership. Servant leadership is all about keeping the people that you serve at the core of what you do. At Walgreens, our boots-on-the-ground leaders are our pharmacists. Walgreens pharmacists are in nearly 9,000 stores across the country, and especially in rural communities, pharmacists are the cornerstone of people’s perceptions of the healthcare system.

Our pharmacists embody servant leadership. Often, they are providing expert counsel while integrating kindness and compassion into every interaction they have with their community. Their servant leadership perspective prompts our pharmacists to truly go above and beyond for patients. Our pharmacists serve as the healthcare system’s air traffic control by coordinating care, knitting together patient needs, and following up to make sure those needs are taken care of. Walgreens pharmacists also help with minor injuries or illnesses and deliver care through vaccination, testing, and, in some cases, prescribing.

Our pharmacists are truly connected to their communities, and they find ways where they can really help and make a difference. Their servant leadership mentality motivates them to do so, and that culture feeds up into the entire Walgreens organization.


Connectedness Through Authenticity

While servant leadership can create connections to the community, it’s also important to make internal connections that strengthen teams. Authentic leadership is hard to crystalize and almost impossible to rehearse, but when it’s not there, teams fall apart. Team members have to know that their leader has passion and has their back. More importantly, team members have to believe that their leader has heart and kindness in an authentic way. If the passion isn’t genuine, it’s obvious. But when authentic leadership is there, it’s a key differentiator.

When I was in military training, I was interacting with people who had graduated from military schools and places like West Point — they were much better equipped to take on the technical and logistical tasks of our training. I wasn’t the best at many of the military skills themselves, like loading weapons or excelling on drills, but in a leadership position, I was awarded for showing heart and passion, conveying that to my organization, and taking care of my team. That created connectivity and trust among all of us.

To me, that kind of magic happens when leaders and teams find a collective purpose and trust each other to achieve that purpose. This trust facilitates what General Stanley McChrystal calls in his book, Team of Teams, “shared consciousness,” or thinking and acting as a team rather than as individuals.

In healthcare, for example, we have a collective purpose, but we don’t always have trust between stakeholders or from our patients. To be better leaders in our teams and across the industry, we have to get back to basics — show authenticity, connect to our common purpose, and trust our teammates as we all work towards our goal of serving patients and improving quality of life.


Innovating with Transparency

The best leaders cultivate servant leadership and create authentic connections to tie their team together, but they also keep innovating. Many leaders and organizations focus on innovation, but what takes innovation from a buzzword to the next level is changing paradigms with clear goals and transparent communication.

No team or organization stays stagnant forever — nor should we want it to. Particularly in healthcare, change happens quickly, and organizations that don’t adapt technology effectively are often left behind. At the same time, change can feel scary and uncertain for teams, especially today when conversations about new technologies like artificial intelligence are also accompanied by discussions of how many jobs AI will replace.

During times of change, transparency in leadership takes precedence. That’s why, at Walgreens, we’re being thoughtful about where our existing strengths are — our servant leaders, our people — and how AI can complement what they do. Instead of spending time counting pills and doing paperwork, AI can help our pharmacists facilitate human connection by freeing time to really listen to people, understanding their health concerns so we can treat them better. Without transparent leadership about new technology, teams fall into fear. Strategic application of technology and open communication can help teams thrive.

This article was written by John Driscoll, executive vice president and president, U.S. Healthcare at Walgreens Boots Alliance. It is a companion to the Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future podcast episode Dispensing Wellness: Walgreens’ Rx for Healthcare with guest John Driscoll.

Check out past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple PodcastsTuneInSpotifyAmazon MusicAudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.


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