Four Essential Qualities for a Successful CEO

My advice for leadership success

By Toby Cosgrove, MD

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More than once, I’ve been asked what qualities make for a successful CEO. Here are four: decisiveness, communication, team building, and intuition. I work in healthcare, but these hold true for any industry. Let me discuss each, then give an example of a leader who embodied all four.

1. Decisiveness

A modern medical center is one of the most complex organizations on earth. There are many competing interests, all with worthy agendas, but resources are limited. Someone has to do the apportioning. Being able to make the hard choices is a great service to any organization in any business, even if that means that sometimes you have to take some heat.

2. Communication

Your vision sets the tone for the whole institution — but not if you keep it a secret. I meet with every work group at Cleveland Clinic at least once a year. I want every one of our 43,000 caregivers to hear from me personally, to share key financial, operational, and quality and safety metrics, and our expectations for the year ahead. We present quarterly video presentations to all caregivers, publish a State of the Clinic annual report, and maintain an extensive in-house intranet – including a CEO blog. You can’t communicate with your organization enough.

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3. Team Building

Collaboration is critical in any industry. Medicine in particular is becoming a team sport. We hire people for collegiality as well as medical excellence. A superstar may come walking through the door, but if she or he doesn’t play well with others, the cost could exceed the benefits. You need to be comfortable working in a team, and empowering others to do so.

4. Intuition

A “sixth sense” about the organization is essential, because people won’t always tell you things to your face — especially when you’ve made a mistake. Nobody wants to give the boss bad news. So CEOs needs to get out of their offices and see and learn what’s working and what isn’t for themselves. We’ve all heard of “emotional intelligence;” this is “organizational intelligence.”

Healthcare urgently needs great leaders

We in healthcare are facing our own historic moment in the 21 century. Relying on decisiveness, communication, team building, and intuition to guide us, we can rise to the occasion.

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Dr. Cosgrove is CEO and President of Cleveland Clinic.