What is the ‘meta’ in ‘metaleadership’?

The knowns and the unknowns


Over the course of a career, it is not uncommon for people to become narrower and more focused in their work purview and interests. Competence in select procedures and practices imparts confidence and reliability in performance and results. One develops a reputation for those skills and capabilities, and others call upon them.

Leonard J. Marcus, PhD, director of the program for health care negotiation and conflict resolution, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Leonard J. Marcus, PhD

Rewards and incentives encourage advancement and promotion along established career paths, further accelerating specialization and concentration. At the top of your game, you advocate for and ease into your comfort zone. That zone is defined by the knowns of practice and the certainties they provide.

For those who prefer to practice in the confines of a narrow clinical sphere, that strategy could be the pathway to career success.

However, for those promoted to leadership positions, the inward and insulated focus today is counterproductive and even dangerous. Many times, physicians advance to a senior position because it is the next step in a preset career ladder, the reward for acumen in clinical skills, or simply out of boredom, with hope for a new landscape and a higher wage. But just because one has a high rank or impressive title does not mean that one is fulfilling the mandates of leadership. It takes more than that. You must be attuned to what is known and unknown in building stability and progress for those you lead.

A brief historic angle: For years, medicine occupied a sweet spot within the health care system. The profession protected its perks and privileges deriving from its untouchable status. With it came superiority, dominance, and protectionism. It was an inward, parochial focus of thinking, status, and reward. The problem was: This insulated mindset prompted a blind spot. The profession missed changes and transformation that were occurring just beyond the comfort zone. Those changes were unknowns in planning and perspective.

In the 1990s, medicine as a whole woke up to calls for change and a new order. The rise of the hospitalist was in part an outgrowth of that wake-up call. It reshaped power structures, status, and lucrative business arrangements within the profession. For many, the sweet spot soured.

The problem with collapsing into a sweet spot today is that so much is changing: all that is known and much that is unknown. Finances, technology, and demand are all in flux. The health care system finds itself in a quantity/quality/cost paradox. Volume accelerates, but at what cost to quality and morale? If someone or something can accomplish similar outcomes at less cost, why not go with the cheaper option? These questions can best be addressed by seeing them in the context of larger changes happening in the health system.


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