Woman Leaders: You Can’t Parachute into Leadership

By Patricia A. Gabow, MD, MACP
November 23, 2020

You cannot and should not parachute into leadership for two reasons. Parachuting depends on there being a place to land and leadership is not simply a piece of geography like the corner office. Nor is it just a title.

Rather it is a way of seeing, thinking, acting, and contributing, wherever you are and whatever your title. Leadership emanates from what motivates us, what is important to us, what we will speak up for, and what will move us to act.

This view of leadership is wrapped in the concepts of leading from where you stand and in thought leadership, in contrast to positional leadership.

Not every woman needs to become a positional leader to bring her perspective to the table, improve healthcare, or be an influencer. This is well exemplified by America’s First Ladies. They were not elected leaders; they didn’t even have a defined job, but many had great influence. Michelle Obama’s focus on good nutrition and physical activity for children resulted in 45 million school children eating healthier breakfasts and lunches and 11 million students participating in an hour of physical activity every day—impressive impact for someone with no defined job.

Karen DeSalvo noted that government service taught her about different types of leadership. When she reported to a mayor, she enjoyed seeing him articulate ideas she had given him. “You can lead by generating good ideas that other people adopt and carry forward.” I have said if you have a good idea keep talking about it until someone in power picks it up and runs with it. Women may be more willing to participate in this type of leadership that is not linked to getting credit.

In leading from where you stand, you can become an influencer, a thought leader, and make important contributions. It can prepare you for and create the path toward positional leadership.

The second reason you can’t parachute into leadership is that you should prepare for the role by maturing the characteristics and philosophy of leadership, and by acquiring the necessary knowledge and the skills to be not only a successful, but an outstanding leader. This maturation
and learning develop as does all other maturation and learning: by observation, experience, formal training, and the guidance and support of others.

Leading from Where You Stand

Leading from where you stand is critically important on a leadership journey. This involves your being engaged in many ways.

As simple as it seems, the first step in leading from where you stand is to show up. Showing up is not only about being present physically, but also about being emotionally and intellectually engaged. You need to care about what you are doing, think about what your work means to you and others, and act to make improvements now. You need to fix what is under your
control. Don’t kick problems “upstairs” or kick them down the road.

Sometimes you should even step out and fix something that is not actually under your control. Given the dysfunction and waste in every nook and cranny of healthcare, there is no shortage of things in your work that need to be fixed. If you see a problem and have a solution, and the solution doesn’t create a problem for someone else, go for it. You don’t have to start with world peace—take on an easy win.

Lean offers everyone the tools to see and solve problems. In fact, if you want to lead from where you stand, learn about Lean. One of the easiest Lean tools creates structure and order, literally where you stand. It is called 5S, with the S’s standing for:

  • Sort (getting rid of the junk);
  • Set In Order (arranging materials for efficient work flow);
  • Shine (getting out the bucket, mop, and cleaning cloths);
  • Standardize, and
  • Sustain, which are linked processes to keep everything in order once you have completed the first three steps (remember what happened after the last time you cleaned your garage).

You might think of it as the work-variant of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. You can start with your office and your computer. If your office is in disarray, your computer is worse! After your office and computer pass the Marie Kondo inspection, you could put a team together and 5S the common space. The assistants in the C-suite at Denver Health 5S’d the work area that contained the copier, paper, etc.—what a difference for them and for us to have an organized space. This may not seem like leadership, but it is the first step in learning a set of tools that teach you to see problems and execute solutions. Moreover, it fulfills an essential component of leadership—being a good example. If the entire organization were 5S’d, the work would flow more efficiently, and employees would be freed from some of the chaos.


Excerpted from: TIME'S NOW for Women Healthcare Leaders
A Guide for the Journey by Patricia A. Gabow


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Patricia A. Gabow, MD, MACP, is formerly the CEO of Denver Health and Professor Emerita University of Colorado School of Medicine. 



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