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The one book about healthcare leadership you should read

Cover of the book Lead True by Jeff Thompson, MD

One of the consistently, high performing areas in publishing is the business leadership literature. Unfortunately, few books focus on value-driven business strategies for healthcare leaders. This is surprising considering we spend at least three trillion dollars a year on healthcare in this country. I say “at least” because this estimate does not take into account the indirect costs of disease burden on families and loss of productivity. Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from celebrity authors like Jim Collins, Steven Covey and Malcolm Gladwell.  Good to Great, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and David and Goliath should be on the reading list of anyone in healthcare leadership.

For aspiring healthcare leaders, there has never been the equivalent of a book like Good to Great or Great by Choice.  Happily, for those of you that have been waiting for such a book, your moment has arrived.  Lead True by Jeff Thompson is perhaps the most compelling, insightful and powerful book on healthcare leadership ever written. Unlike Jim Collins who is an academic, or Covey who is a thought leader, Jeff Thompson was an “in the trenches” neonatologist taking care of the sickest most vulnerable patient population (premature babies) while taking the Gundersen Health System from average to Great in the span of 14 years as CEO. Accordingly, his new book is a blue print for any individual or organization seeking greatness in healthcare leadership.

The transformation of Gundersen Health during Dr. Thompson’s tenure was stunning. Situated in rural western Wisconsin, Gundersen Health was the first hospital in the country to be designated as a center for excellence in breast cancer. As Gundersen came to realize its pollution was sickening the very children it was tasked with caring for, it transitioned to renewable energy. Now more than ninety percent of its energy comes from locally sourced renewables. It also cut its CO2 and particulate matter emissions by 95% and through these efforts created jobs.  In terms of quality, Gundersen sits consistently in the top 5% for every quality measurement category. And in spite of serving an impoverished and aging population, it has one of the lowest rates of Medicare re-imbursements in the country simply because it sought clarity in helping families with end of life planning. This is truly a Good to Great type of trajectory. And it is written by a man who has walked the walk.

Like a great teacher instructing through the wisdom of individual experience, this is an intensely intimate and personal journey.

As a writer, Dr. Thompson is no ordinary academic wonk spewing B-school exegeses. He is an intelligent, practical leader who, by his own admission, has a “Disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom.” Unlike Collins, Gladwell or Covey, Thompson is not a researcher or 3rd party observer. He gets his hands dirty with the work and brings the reader in for a candid look at the successes and failures. It is a view so close that the reader can feel the “Moral imperative of the work” and the mission to be met.

Like a great teacher instructing through the wisdom of individual experience, this is an intensely intimate and personal journey. Decisions in the Gundersen system are based on how they align with the organization’s vision and mission. When you lead a healthcare organization outside of its walls to make the community healthier you have to think outside the conventional rules. Understandably, this kind of decision making induces vertigo in hospital boards populated with business leaders accustomed to the primary metric of a quarterly bottom line. Yet it is because of mission-based/value-based leadership that Gundersen has become great. Thompson also makes compelling financial arguments for all these decisions and demonstrates that reducing waste, improving morale, empowering frontline soldiers with decision making is not just good healthcare practice, it is sound business practice.

So, whether you are a physician, a nurse, a social worker or an infrastructure person whose work is critical for healthcare delivery, this is a must read. For healthcare and healthcare systems to function optimally, everyone must maximize their opportunities and align with values to Lead True.

Associate Professor of Surgery
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

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