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3 Tips to Make You a Better Leader

by Susan O’Malley, M.D. on May 5, 2017

As a former emergency room physician, each time I stepped onto the ER floor, I was leading a different team. The patients, staff and challenges were different, but the fundamental leadership principles remained the same.

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You don’t have to be the CEO of an organization or the manager of a department to be considered a leader. We’re all leaders, and how we conduct ourselves impacts the morale and productivity of those around us. No matter your role in the organization, you will face different situations, people and challenges. Leadership is subjective; results are not.

Here are three lessons I learned about leadership in my time as an ER physician. I think you’ll find they are universally relevant, regardless of your rank or role.


1. Stay Calm Under Pressure

The leader sets the tone and people will take their cue from you. If you’re frantic or volatile, so is your team. If you lose your temper on a regular basis, it may not make those around you outwardly angry, but it will signal to everyone that you are not in control of your emotions and hurt your credibility.

Staying calm under pressure is not a character trait. Most of us aren’t born with it, but it can be learned. During my time in the ER, I would often ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” In healthcare, patients’ lives—or at least, their experience and satisfaction—are on the line. But that’s what your training is for, and most times, the worst-case scenario never comes to pass. Take a breath, rely on your training, work as a team and ask for help when you need it.

2. Admit Your Mistakes

We all wake up in the morning and set out to do our best work. But mistakes happen.

Over the years, I treated thousands of people involved in motor vehicle accidents. People driving big cars and little cars, in the city and the suburbs, little fender benders and life-altering accidents. Each one was different, and yet they all had one thing in common—it was always the other person’s fault. Interacting with thousands of these patients, not once did any of their stories start with the words, “It was my fault.”

Mistakes happen, but how you react matters more than what you did. It has been my experience that people can forgive a mistake but they don’t take kindly to being lied to or fooled. I don’t know the specific statistics, but during my residency program, I learned that people are more likely to sue doctors when they are made to feel foolish or ignored.

So if you make a wrong, make it right. Eventually, you or a team member will make an error. If it’s you, admit it. If it’s someone on your team, stay calm.

3. Value Everyone on Your Team

Many times leaders think of their team as their direct reports. Your team is bigger than you think, and everyone’s role is vital to the success of the organization.

If you have a secretary in the department, she is on your team; if you work late into the night, the security guard is on your team—as is housekeeping and maintenance. Everyone whose job enables you to complete your work is on your team, because if these people didn’t do their jobs, you couldn’t do yours.

When I worked in the ER, I always said hello to the janitor. We didn’t even speak the same language, but I would smile at him and he would smile back. If I was sitting at the desk and he needed to empty the trash bin, I would reach underneath and hand it to him.

Everyone was so busy in the emergency room that no one spoke to the janitor. But if he didn’t clean up the place, we couldn’t function. If housekeeping didn’t clean up the blood after a trauma, we couldn’t have treated the next trauma.

Valuing everyone on your team is easier than you think. It involves saying thank you and following up. “Thank you for bringing that patient to radiology yourself. He has pneumonia and we’re going to admit him to the hospital.” “Thank you for typing the compliance report. Because you organized it so well, I was able to present it succinctly to the auditor.”

It’s a simple approach that will make people both inside and outside your department feel like they are part of your team. Because they are.

It doesn’t matter if you have direct patient contact or are involved in the business side of healthcare, we all want the same things. We want to be heard, seen and appreciated. Decisions that get made in the workplace are either going to help people lead happy and productive lives or go to work stuck in a job that they hate. As a leader, every decision you make affects someone’s life.

To hear more about these leadership strategies, you’re invited to watch a webinar recording presented by Dr. O’Malley, “Leadership Lessons from the Emergency Room.”

Meet the Author

Dr. Susan O’Malley is a former emergency room doctor, author and the owner and Medical Director of Madison Med Spa in Madison, CT. She also has served as a Cassling Investing in You webinar speaker. Her book, Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble: Turn Set-Backs into Success, outlines the strategies that transformed her from college drop-out and secretary to emergency room doctor and entrepreneur. When she’s not keeping women beautiful at the spa, Dr. O’Malley helps leaders transform obstacles into victories by teaching perseverance and resilience. To learn more, visit www.susanomalleymd.com

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