September 8, 2016/Leadership

Medical Leadership Calls for Humility, Self-Awareness

Know your gaps, respect the competition


By Toby Cosgrove, MD


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An organization may have the best doctors, the finest facilities, and the most advanced technology, but without effective leadership – guided by empathy, transparency and collaboration – it will never achieve greatness.

Yet, effective leadership is one of the most neglected components of quality healthcare. It’s essential at every level – from large integrated medical systems, to community hospitals and physician practices.

We all know that healthcare is changing. Medical leadership is also changing. The days of arrogance, isolation and opacity are gone. Honesty, transparency and collaboration have taken their place. Trust is essential. So is empathy. Above all, we must have humility.

Humility has been called the ultimate wisdom. None of us know it all. Leaders should be aware of their own gaps in expertise, and respect those with different talent training. It’s always a mistake to fall for your own image in the media. Overconfidence leads you to underrate the competition and this can lead to disaster. Leaders can never forget they’re here to serve others.

We have to be open to new ideas and new people – no matter how unusual or counterintuitive. And we can never lose the hunger to learn – from nature, other people and other organizations.


Will following this advice someday put you in a situation where you look foolish? Possibly. But when you commit yourself to innovation, that’s a risk you take.

Humility is not the absence of self-worth, but the validation of self-worth. It’s not weakness, but the hidden strength that enables effective leadership.

Business author Jim Collins has observed that humility plus will is what moves leadership from “good” to “great.” Collins uses Abraham Lincoln as an example. “He was reserved, awkward, gangly and had personal humility,” but by the strength of his will, our nation survived its worst crisis.

Pride and ambition have their place, but to be an effective leader, it must be pride of service and ambition to reach our collective goals.


Learn to become a physician leader with Cleveland Clinic Global Executive Education programs, including The Cleveland Clinic Way: IntensivesSamson Global Leadership Academy and the Executive Visitors’ Program.

Dr. Cosgrove is Executive Advisor and former CEO & President

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