5 Essential Skills for Healthcare Executives

Wallis Annenberg Hall at University of Southern California

Recently this blog featured an article on the importance of empathy in healthcare clinicians: Nurse Warmth and Doctor Giggles. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that empathy is an increasingly necessary skill for healthcare leaders as well. USC’s Ernest J. Wilson III describes his recent research and provides salient definitions in his Fortune article on the five skills executives need:

Intellectual Curiosity: a deep hunger to learn and grow and a willingness to experiment in order to learn.

360-Degree Thinking: the ability to think holistically, recognize patterns, and make imaginative leaps based on those patterns.

Cultural Competence: the capacity to think and act across the boundaries of functions, organizational cultures and global cultures.

Empathy: a deep emotional intelligence, closely connected to cultural competence, that enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes, and understand their unique perspectives. 

Adaptability: mental agility, comfort with ambiguity, and the capacity to change old behaviors in light of new evidence.

Together these five skills make up Third Space thinking according to Wilson.

Jon Iwata of IBM

This Third Space thinking, especially empathy, is also addressed in Wilson’s recent article for the Harvard Business Review.

"Many people and a host of commentators instinctively recoiled at the callous management practices described in a scathing New York Times article last month about Amazon. So did Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive. In a memo to Amazon employees, he wrote, 'Our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.'

He’s right, not only on humanitarian grounds but also for reasons that should appeal to a hard-headed businessman like him. At Amazon and other businesses, the 'e-word' should be the watchword. ..."

This speaks to a pattern that was revealed in Wilson's research. The skills executives need most are often the skills they lack. Martin Shkreli, another CEO, has also recently felt social media, political, and economic backlash after refusing to demonstrate empathy in response to outrage over Turing Pharmaceuticals announcement, and subsequent repeal, of a 5000% price increase on Daraprim.

Soft skills, like empathy, are part of your emotional intelligence. This emotional intelligence, made up of self-awareness, self management, empathy, and relationship skills, is outlined in Daniel Goleman’s New York Times feature. Emotional intelligence is the key factor in career success according to research psychologists Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. It plays a larger role than intellect and personality according to their research. The good news is that your emotional intelligence can be developed throughout your career. Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, has spent his career exercising this skill set, recommending empathy as a primary requirement for frontline leadership.

You can read Dr. Wilson’s working paper, The one-trillion dollar global talent gap: What it is, and what we can do about it for an in-depth primer on Third Space thinking. If you’d like to share your professional experiences you can participate in ongoing research by filling out a survey.

Get the Leading Disruptive Change eBook

Anna Montgomery, MPA

Written by Anna Montgomery, MPA

Anna Montgomery earned her MPA at USC Price and is pursuing her EdD at USC Rossier.