Dr. Thomas Graham on what makes for a 'great leader' in healthcare

Thomas Graham, MD, is a clinical professor in the department of orthopedic surgery and associate chief of the division of hand surgery at New York City-based NYU Langone Health.

He has held a number of important leadership roles in his career, including serving as the Cleveland Clinic's first chief innovation officer. Here, Dr. Graham discusses his leadership strategies and career aspirations.

Note: Responses were lightly edited for length, style and clarity.

Question: You have described hand surgery as a "team sport." Can you explain what you mean by that?

Dr. Thomas Graham: I've been fortunate to be able to assimilate my life in professional sports and life in healthcare, both of which require collaboration and focus on a goal. Nobody works in isolation. You can look at that longitudinally in somebody's career, as we have all benefited from mentorship and hopefully will pass that on. You can also look at it in the episodic way — we then take care of all of our patients. We have to think about their needs [and how we can work together to] influence their outcome. You really want to establish a relationship with your colleagues because [the outcome involves] everybody who they connect with throughout their entire medical journey, especially the symphony that goes on in the operating room where you have maybe three to six other people all concentrating on one individual, the patient.

Essentially, it's coordination, it's communication. Now, we have greater tools to do that. It used to be a fax machine, a phone and a paper chart. Now, by activating the patient in their own care, informing them and then making sure everybody else is very connected, I think we have a greater opportunity than ever to seek and deliver the best outcomes.

Q: How do you define "greatness" in healthcare leadership?

TG: I embrace the concept of working within a mission-driven environment. Most missions of the high-performing organizations can be boiled down to healing the sick, investigating their problems and training future leaders. Those clinical, scientific and educational aspirations are your North Star. Then, what really ties them together is putting the patient first. I always think [about] if some of our community representatives were sitting at the end of our board table and hearing our conversation, [whether] they'd think we are acting with responsibility, with empathy. I think that's a great checkpoint.

Right now, medical leadership is difficult because we're talking about allocation of scarce resources — maybe more than ever before. So, we need to think about how we're running the business side of healthcare as well as delivering the best level of quality and safety, [and improving] access, outcome and fiscal responsibility. Approaching this with a great balance of integrity, empathy and humility makes a great leader.

Q: How are your aspirations now different than when you started your career?

TG: Earlier in my career, I would have aspired to be a significant contributor academically to developing new techniques and technology that would be used around the world. Now that I look back, that was myopic.

My answer today would be balance. Maybe that [seems like] the antithesis of "Win the World Series," but I'd say it's the organizations that understand the player the best and bring the best culture into the clubhouse that actually deliver on the field or the court — I don't see them as different. Championship organizations [are] the ones that understand how to get the best out of each individual and position them in places they'll succeed. I want to be someone who appreciates how each individual fits into that mosaic and knows well enough how to put together resources for the highest chance of success.

Want to participate in future Becker's Q&As? Email Angie Stewart: astewart@beckershealthcare.com.

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