In 2023, positive leadership is mission-critical

Ainsley MacLean, MD, is the Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO) at Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group In Kaiser Permanente.

There is no denying that the last two years have seemed stacked against employers in almost every industry. Between the mass resignation, silent quitting and burnout crisis affecting many sectors, business leaders are struggling to find meaningful solutions to employee engagement and retention issues. While many will focus on specific and important areas of concern, such as pay and benefits or work-life balance, business leaders will also remember the critical role of work culture and leadership in keeping employees engaged and motivated.

Too often, when envisioning an ideal leadership paradigm, soft skills like positivity are relegated to the “nice to have” category, but not essential to day-to-day operations. This couldn’t be further from the truth: Numerous recent studies have shown that positive leadership at the top promotes better engagement, deeper job satisfaction and greater productivity among employees.

Many leaders probably understand the value of positive leadership, but too few know how to implement and sustain it, especially in challenging times like these when it is harder to sustain but even more crucial. Here are some of the positive leadership practices my technology team at Kaiser Permanente uses to create optimism in our workplace.

1. Celebrate success

First and foremost, positive leadership involves recognizing the team’s successes. When someone does something exceptional or achieves something they’ve been working towards for a while, it’s critical to dedicate time to evoking the success—especially in a public forum. Giving team members recognition for a job well done, especially one where they use individual creativity or problem solving to overcome a challenge, makes everyone feel good. Moreover, it creates a culture that motivates us all to follow suit.

2. Realize that the buck stops here

At its core, the reason we seek leadership roles is to be involved in something bigger than ourselves. When something goes wrong, pointing fingers is not productive; ultimately, the solutions are inherent to you. To that end, I spend a lot of time thinking about the tasks I’m going to accomplish with my team that day, my underlying strategies for what it is we need to achieve long-term, and the things I know are going to help. support my team members to get us where we need to be. When something does not go as I plan, I have therefore thought through the alternatives and am prepared to take responsibility and pivot.

3. Never compromise on self-care

As a leader, you have to take care of yourself. There will always be challenges that come up in your personal life and if you are consistently not in a good place emotionally it will affect your interactions with your team members. So whatever makes you the best version of yourself—exercise, more sleep, spending time with family and friends, whatever makes you feel good and hopeful—you need to make time for it. By prioritizing good self-care, you can lead with real optimism and energy.

4. Honor the need for fun

One of the things I like to do with my teams is start meetings with a question that’s both personal and fun, like “What’s your favorite winter sport?” We recently opened a meeting with this question, and it turned out that everyone likes skiing and snowboarding. As a result, we have now planned a team building exercise to go skiing or snowboarding on a local mountain. (They’ve all promised not to get hurt.) Incorporating fun into work reminds us all that we’re human first, and that work is just part of who we are.

5. The model’s authenticity and vulnerability

Once, in a meeting, a doctor on my team shared a story about how his father, a teacher, always made cookies during the holidays and every time he had cookies he thought of him. It was a very nice, meaningful thing to share. As a leader, it is important to be willing to share about yourself. Before I give a strategy update, I’ll share something small and personal—perhaps my favorite dessert, my favorite sport, or my favorite holiday tradition growing up. Opening up in this way ensures that our teams see us as approachable, relatable and most of all human. It is also important to spend time with team members in person whenever possible in the new remote work environment. The human to human interaction and social connections we make when we enjoy or celebrate together in the same space cannot be replaced.

6. Keep all eyes on the mission

As a leader, you need to be able to visualize, in HD, a positive future – and then you need to paint that picture for your team. It is also about reminding people of the central core of the mission. In our case, it is caring for patients. So at the end of the day, when you consider our software engineers, for example, they are here at Kaiser Permanente and not another company because they truly believe in their role in shaping a positive and healthy future for our patients—and in contributing for a greater purpose, that of promoting the quality of the healthcare system in our country.

Relentless optimism is an invaluable (and totally underrated) quality in leadership. Projecting this optimism sincerely, authentically and purposefully is a consistent line in an overall strategy for positive leadership. Let us all strive to live and work each day in a way that naturally engages and inspires our teams in the pursuit of a common mission.


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