Podcast | Dr. Stephen M. Shortell on Authentic Leadership

May 12, 2024 | Articles, Leadership, Podcast

Dr. Stephen M. Shortell, MPH, MBA, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of the Graduate School and Dean Emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health where he has held the Blue Cross of California Distinguished Professorship in Health Policy and Management. His expertise is in conceptualizing, measuring, and analyzing organizational factors that are associated with hospital, physician organization, and health system performance. He has conducted research on ACOs integrated care models, innovations in healthcare delivery, developing taxonomies of healthcare organizations and systems, and examining the application of the Lean management/operating system in U.S. hospitals. 

Stephen wrote one of the first textbooks specifically for health services managers and researchers, “Health Care Management: A Text in Organization Theory and Behavior.” First published in 1983 and updated several times, it remains one of the foremost texts in the field of health care management.

Stephen has been a member of ACHE since 1967 and works in Alameda county.

Moderated by Michael O’Connell. This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview here. 

CAHL/Mr. O’Connell: Tell us how you got involved in healthcare. You came from a small town in New London in the heart of Wisconsin. And how did that lead you to academia as opposed to being a healthcare administrator in a hospital, nursing home, or medical group?

Dr. Shortell: When I was about 8 years old, my mother came down with polio and was hospitalized for 9 months. She survived and that experience exposed me to hospitals. I had little interest in biology or the sciences and when I went to college, my undergraduate advisor encouraged me to get experiences in different fields and I got a job on the graveyard shift as an orderly at an outpatient psychiatric unit in a hospital. The hospital administrator took me under his wing and told me that there was a career for me in health care if I was interested. So, I went to UCLA to get my master’s and I was going to be a healthcare executive. One of my professors told me that I authored good papers and asked if I would consider a career in academia and upon further review, the healthcare research bug bit me! I loved research and writing and decided to pursue a career in healthcare academia and went on to get my PhD in a program that focused on the healthcare sector.

CAHL: What made you decide to get involved in the specific areas of health policy and the topics that you’ve focused on in your professional career? 

Dr. Shortell: The health services research field was just beginning to take off at that time of my graduate studies and I rode the wave through the years. We could see ourselves as having an impact to influence some of these newly developing policies and to teach others. We had several grants that allowed me to pursue integrated delivery systems and other topics that interested me.

CAHL: How has your effective leadership style positively impacted your research teams or your academic departments? Can you provide specific instances where the leadership effectiveness contributed to the success of a research project or a team collaboration?

Dr. Shortell: It’s getting to know your people, whoever they are, in whatever setting. And my research teams often have been beyond the geographic location. And basically, what made it work is you get to know what their interests are and allow them to shine. They need to affiliate and be a part of something. They need to stand out at times. I think an effective leader is somebody who recognizes those two basic needs.

CAHL: Any lessons learned in terms of strategies or efforts that you in the academic world or in the organizations that you’ve worked with regarding efficiency, effectiveness, or productivity?

Dr. Shortell: You can’t make good decisions with only 20% of the information. You need 60%+ of the information to make good decisions. Let’s work together on how we can solve problems, where we need to get more data, and what decisions do we need to wait on until we have more data. We need to prioritize our work. So many people want to boil the ocean and have too many strategic priorities to achieve.  What are the 2 or 3 things that really need to get done? And work on them.

CAHL: What are some of the ways that you’ve pursued a work-life balance or developed your teams to be able to pursue a work-life balance as well?

Dr. Shortell: It’s critically important. I’ve been blessed in my life with my wife and family who have been very supportive and allowed me to spend a lot of hours on what I’ve liked to do. Personally, I’ve been a big believer in exercise, and so I’ve been a runner throughout most of my life. I go hiking and I’m doing a lot more reading and I enjoy my work a lot.

CAHL: As we end today’s podcast, do you have any parting comments for our listeners? 

Dr. Shortell: I think there’s some real opportunities for leadership to make a difference. We need to break down silos. We need to keep talking to one another. Keep experimenting, willing to take some prudent risk, not silly risk, but prudent risk. We need to challenge ourselves. We can do better. I know we can do better. And there’s ways of achieving a slower rate of growth and costs and making care more affordable while not only maintaining but improving quality. We have a lot of great people in this State who can meet that challenge. I’ll just leave it at that.