In a recent interview with the Washington Post newspaper, Dr. Louis Sullivan shared his perspectives on leadership. The son of a mortician who grew up in rural Georgia during segregation, Sullivan went on to graduate from Boston University School of Medicine in 1958 as the only African-American student in his class. He later became founding dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine and served as U.S. secretary of health and human services. (Morehouse College is the only all-male historically black institution of higher learning in the United States.)
This is the second of two articles adapted from that interview.
What do you see as the biggest leadership and management challenges that hospitals and their administrators face?
Sullivan: These are large organizations that are complex, where tremendous innovation is constantly underway. So you need to have strong leadership to manage all of this and to see that the patient always comes first. It takes strong leadership skills and technical skills to make sure that the system works effectively. That’s a challenge. But it’s also a great opportunity to improve … lives.
What leadership lessons did you take from your experience leading the Department of Health and Human Services?
Sullivan: When I became secretary in 1989, it was my first time in government service. Most of the 124,000 employees in the organization didn’t really know me. I had a habit of walking every day for exercise, so I invited the employees to walk with me. It turned out that as I went around the country visiting our regional offices, I would have 25 to 200 of our employees join me. That was a great opportunity to get to know them, to share with them my goals for the department and to hear from them about important issues.
I call this “leadership while walking around.” My tenure as secretary was greatly enhanced by building that relationship with employees.
What do you believe?
Sullivan: Well, first of all, I believe in the power of information and in the value of scientific inquiry. We’ve seen the result of that over the course of the 20th century. We’ve wiped out smallpox. We’ve largely eliminated polio. Tuberculosis has been greatly decreased. All of these improvements and many others are the result of understanding more about biology. Knowledge really improves our world and our environment.
Finally, I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. All of us are often stressed in our lives. Not enough time, not enough resources. But when there is a time of great stress in a community, usually we come together.
What’s your single best piece of advice?
Sullivan: Have clear goals and work hard toward them. You’d be amazed at what you can achieve.