Leadership Lessons from Grey’s Anatomy

Thanks to Erin Duggins for this…

In a recent showing of Grey’s Anatomy, there was a prevalent theme regarding leadership, and to what degree those with the best technical capabilities can rise to the occasion and make the best leaders.

The Grey’s Anatomy writers used a fictional “Gunther” exercise to exemplify this leadership theme. The “Gunther” exercise was suggested by attending physician, Dr. Miranda Bailey, to see how well the residents would work together to help save a patient’s life, and to see which one of the residents would reveal him or herself to be the leader (aka “Gunther). Chief Resident, Dr. April Kepner, who was selected last year because of her cool demeanor and expertise in handling crisis situations, had a difficult time getting any of her colleagues to listen to her; could not reinforce the use of standard operating/quality control procedures; and had little influence with them when it came to getting their cooperation or assistance in completing tasks. So who was the top contender for the “Gunther” designation? One would assume that Dr. Christina Yang, the resident prodigy, would be the obvious choice! After all, she was the most knowledgeable and skilled of all of the residents. Wouldn’t you want her to lead your surgical team if you ended up on the operating table? Shouldn’t she get to be the one that calls the shots? Well, if you picked Dr. Yang, then you were wrong. In fact, Dr. Yang crashed and burned in the leadership arena. “Gunther” turned out to be Dr. Avery Jackson, who wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen. Why? Because, although he’s a solid doctor, his skill as a surgeon isn’t exactly awe-inspiring.

As I watched this part of the storyline unfold, it occurred to me that this happens often in the real world. How many times have we erroneously assumed that just because one has positional authority that it makes him or her a good leader? How many times do we hire people based solely on of their technical skills and knowledge? How many times have you, as a hiring manager, written up a position description and requisite qualifications, and all of them had to do with skills and experience? Or, how often have we ignored leadership development for employees and focused only on those that have positional authority (i.e., first-line supervisors, mid-level managers, and executives)?

Given that government agencies are typically functionally organized, it is very easy to focus on hiring leaders that have high-levels of functional expertise. And I certainly don’t intend to communicate the message that functional expertise isn’t important. What I am saying, however, is that leadership: a) isn’t necessarily about those just in positional authority, and b) isn’t based solely on knowledge and ability, but has a large behavioral component as well — a component that is often ignored during selection, and rarely developed in employees who will ultimately assume leadership positions as they have more time in service. So all of this begs the question — what are the largest lessons that can be gleaned from this Grey’s Anatomy story line?

1. Leadership isn’t just about positional authority. It is something that can be demonstrated and developed at any level of the organization.

2. It is sometimes those that are not in positional authority that have the largest level of influence on a team or in an organization. This is especially important to remember when implementing large change initiatives. It is often those in positions of influence, and not necessarily positional authority, that can help an initiative succeed or shut it down.

3. When selecting leaders, technical skills are necessary, but not sufficient. It is important to determine what behavioral competencies are necessary for a potential leader to succeed in an organization from a mission execution and people management perspective.

4. In organizations that require a high degree of technical skill (e.g., medical professions, aeronautics, finance, etc.), it is important to differentiate between career paths for those that only desire to be technical experts versus those that have the capability and desire to be leaders. In bureaucracies like federal government agencies where promotion to leadership is in large part based on time in service, it is easy to have a large number of employees at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels who are functional experts, but don’t desire, or have the competencies, to be good team leaders or people managers. For those agencies that are able, it could be a good idea to have multiple career paths in their job series, which would facilitate planning for selection, development and promotion purposes.

5. One should not be awarded a leadership position just based on technical proficiency alone or time in service, just as one should not be blocked from obtaining management/leadership positions just because they aren’t the best technical expert or haven’t been with the agency since the agency’s creation. This phenomena is clear even in sports. How many of the great professional NBA players, such as Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird, have had awful coaching careers; while less revered players such as Pat Riley (L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat), Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls) and Doc Rivers (Boston Celtics) have led teams to NBA championships? They may not have been the best in the game as players, but when it came to leading teams to victories as coaches, they were all stars.

Does this mean that all of us need to go out and have a “Gunther” exercise like the characters in Grey’s Anatomy to see which people will crash and burn, or rise to the top as leaders? Not exactly. However, it does suggest that we must go beyond old assumptions about what makes a good manager or leader — those things that are easier to measure, thereby minimizing leadership selection, development and promotion to “checking the box.” As it stands, leadership development is almost an exercise in segregation in that we limit our leadership development to those that are already in leadership positions. What the Gunther exercise should tell us is that there should be more equal opportunity in our leadership development programs because the people that rise to the top could be those that you least expect.