Very early in my career in healthcare administration, I was appointed as the departmental administrator for the Department of Surgery in a small medical school in central Illinois. Looking back, I am astonished that I had the position—I was 26 years old with no health care experience. I like to think that the chair of surgery saw my potential!
In the first week on the job, I was asked to attend a meeting of the faculty group practice board. It was an interesting meeting in that the chairs of all of the clinical departments and a few representatives of the clinical faculty met, with their administrators sitting in chairs behind the table. (I used to think about this meeting as a place where I simply watched people meet!)
At any rate, one of the agenda topics during the meeting was a discussion around the need to write a new practice plan—essentially a new compensation plan—for the clinical faculty. The attorney in the room asked for a volunteer from the department administrators to assist him in this effort. I surveyed the room and noticed that no one was volunteering. The attorney asked again. The silence was growing a little uncomfortable, so I raised my hand and volunteered to work with him on this important project.
So you might be asking, “What is so unusual about this story?” Don’t people volunteer all of the time to help with institutional projects, even when their job is embedded in a department, a clinic or a unit? Well, in this instance as I walked out of the room, the situation was unique because I had only one question on my mind: “What is a practice plan?”
That’s right. I had just volunteered to be the co-leader of a critically important institutional project about which I knew virtually nothing!
Needless to say, I did a lot of research and sought advice from people I trusted. Along the way, I learned what needed to be done. When the project was completed, not only had I made a reasonable contribution to the effort, but I had also become an invaluable asset as a result of the experience, not just to the clinical faculty in my department, but to the entire clinical faculty, because I knew in great detail how the physicians were paid. My title and position signified that I was a leader in the Department of Surgery, but volunteering for that project made me an informal leader in the institution.
While formal leaders have a certain level of authority and help set expectations, informal leaders are just as critical to the success of an organization. It would be very difficult for any department to reach its goals without informal leaders, and consequently, very difficult—if not impossible—for an organization to reach its goals.
Informal leaders are individuals who take on new projects and move steadily toward their individual and team goals; often, they learn as they go and by the end of a project, have gained a new wealth of knowledge from their experience. They are then able to share the information they have learned (as well as their newfound strengths) with the team and offer their thoughts and suggest positive solutions; in doing so, they help to create an atmosphere of synergy and constructive interchange.
In fact, research on team performance shows that having informal leaders within a group can increase the overall performance of the team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone on the team is “the” leader. Instead, it means that the team recognizes the strengths of others in the group and they encourage one another to leverage those strengths. In this way, the team learns from each other and through this camaraderie, is then collectively able to achieve what an individual alone could not. The team is empowered to complete pieces of a larger plan; and in turn, the official manager is able to direct their focus toward how that plan will help the organization to achieve its overarching goals. The official manager is also then in a more effective stance to truly lead and develop the team.
With this in mind, we all have an opportunity to be leaders in our own areas and to provide leadership to assist UTMB Health in achieving The Road Ahead. When we embrace the opportunities that arise when working as a team and when we take on new challenges, learn and explore, we gain skills from which we will benefit in the future and that will benefit our team and the entire organization. This is one of the many ways we can work together to work wonders.
Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position. —Brian Tracy