Nothing Replaces the Value of Authenticity

Strong leadership involves real listening

Donald Malone MD

Plenty of leaders claim “my door is always open,” but fewer actually back up those words with action. In 2013, when Donald A. Malone Jr., MD, first became president of Lutheran Hospital in Cleveland, he made sure people knew that he meant it when he said he wanted to hear what was on the minds of hospital caregivers.

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“When I got there, I had an open door policy in the president’s office. Literally, my door was open,” Dr. Malone tells Brian Bolwell, MD, in a recent episode of “Beyond Leadership: At the Intersection of Leadership and Everything Else.”

At first, Dr. Malone says, people seemed reluctant to visit, but eventually they started to drop in to talk through issues that were important to them. “What they had to talk to me about varied in significance to me, but not to them,” Dr. Malone says.

He couldn’t solve every problem that was brought forward, but he listened and acknowledged all concerns. “I can tell you, I avoided many, many pitfalls by listening to whoever it was.”

In 2020, Dr. Malone was named President of Ohio Hospitals and Family Health Centers. He oversees Cleveland Clinic main campus and all Ohio regional hospitals, family health centers and ambulatory sites.

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Authenticity in leadership is among the qualities he brought with him to the new position.

While he was President at Lutheran, Malone says, he worked to learn every caregiver’s name. It wasn’t easy. “I can remember everything about you, but I don’t always remember [your name],” he says.

He got better at that, as well as asking people how they were doing and really listening for the response. “They began to realize that I meant it,” he says. “I really wanted them to know I cared, because whatever they did, they were an important part of the team.”

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Podcast excerpt

Don Malone, MD: We have a hand hygiene initiative this year throughout the enterprise, which means you have to foam, sterilize your hands on the way into a room, and sterilize your hands on the way out of a room. And we developed this thing called SNAP – “scrub now and protect.” One of our infection prevention people ran a contest and we named it. You could snap your fingers to remind somebody to wash their hands.

I knew [we were successful] when a housekeeper in the intensive care unit snapped her fingers at our intensive care physician who didn’t foam in, and he just smiled and said thank you. That is what you have to see. That is when there’s psychological safety. And of course that story went rampant around the hospital. And everybody had a great time with it, including the intensivist, who said, “Hey, you know what, I’m OK with that.” But you can’t just rest on that, because [psychological safe] is something that has to be fed. It’s something that you have to foster every day, or it goes away.