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Character Strengths of Exemplary Leaders in Health Care

written by Donna Payne 28 March 2018

Donna Payne, MAPP 2015 es coach ejecutiva, consultora estratégica y facilitadora que incorpora sus años de experiencia como ejecutivo senior de cuidados de salud en su coaching y sus practicas de consultoría. Integra la ciencia de la psicología positiva en su trabajo con líderes que quieren aumentar sus habilidades para dirigir, inspirar, crear cambios significativos y lograr resultados. Los artículos de Donna se pueden encontrar aquí.

How do some of the most respected and admired leaders in health care achieve extraordinary result? How do they flourish in the midst of an ever changing and highly complex health care system that at some point in time impacts each of us and those we love? I was curious how exemplars, the best and the brightest, manage during times of crisis, transition and change. How do they ignite and sustain their capacity to produce exceptional outcomes with their teams as measured by the industry and their peers.

Learn from the Best

Building a hospital culture is more complex than building a hospital

Health care leadership is challenging, and it needs flourishing leaders. So I set how to learn how well-known US health care leaders achieve substantial results that are sustained over long periods of time. I was looking for characteristics of human flourishing in their attitudes, behaviors, and values.

I asked twelve leaders through structured interviews to share stories of transitions, disappointments, and high points in their leadership journeys. Tales of bravery, authenticity, and kindness emerged. Hope, humor, love, and close personal relationships were embedded in their leadership.

What was most surprisingly pervasive among the leaders interviewed was not the relationship of exemplary leadership behaviors and attitudes with the well-researched theories of human flourishing, but instead the emergence of three categories of virtues which were consistently demonstrated in their stories.

What Strengths Prevailed?

Strengths associated with the virtues of courage, humanity, and transcendence were foundational to their leadership. Although other strengths were exhibited, these three areas were remarkable for their consistency across this group of leaders. The leaders perceived that these strengths had transformational impacts on their teams. Characteristics of practical wisdom and mindfulness emerged secondarily.

Leaders demonstrated courage strengths, bravery and perseverance, when taking the risk to change the cultures of their organizations. They built trust within their teams to tackle big challenges by being vulnerable and modeling new behaviors they wanted to instill in their teams. Authenticity and honesty were evident in their commitments to their values and in deliberate, direct communication at all levels in their organizations.

Surgical Team

The transcendent strength, Hope, creates the ability to achieve goals. These leaders consistently instilled hope throughout their organizations. Hope was a vital component of each leader’s communication styles.

Expressions of humanity were evident through love and kindness. Demonstrating compassion is an expectation of the health care profession, but it is not always witnessed there. One leader took specific action to instill compassion into clinical practice by implementing a compassionate care program to teach compassion and kindness for caregivers and for patients. This same leader created an endowed chair for compassion.

Another leader intentionally measured joy on a daily basis. If a particular day weren’t joyful, the team took steps to create more joy in the workplace. They created a ministry of fun with events and rituals to bring everyone together.

Humor in hospital

Play and humor were strengths used by leaders to make tense situations more manageable, create energy to endure adversity in the moment, lighten moods, lift spirits, and create stronger connections among a team. Several leaders recruited for compassion and humor. Teams that can play together create a bond and authenticity for making tough decisions. Humor can spark fun, openness, a little humility, and close personal connections.

The strength of love was demonstrated in valuing close relationships. All leaders emphasized how essential the love and support of their families were to their ability to perform as leaders. Genuinely caring about their teams and creating high quality relationships were essential to success.

There has been little if any research into flourishing health care leadership. This small study of exemplars opens the door for further inquiry and developing a model based on character strengths for flourishing health care leadership. The strengths of hope, humor, and love seem particularly vital for healthcare, where close connections between caregivers and patients are essential for good outcomes and high-stakes challenges are an everyday occurrence.



Payne, D. (2015). Learning from Health Care Exemplars: How The Best Produce Extraordinary Results. MAPP Capstone, University of Pennsylvania.

Cameron, K.S., & Winn, B. (2012). Virtuousness in organizations. In K.S. Cameron & G. M. Spreitzer (Eds.), T The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (pp. 231-243). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Harzer, C. & Ruch, W. (2013). The application of signature character strengths and positive experiences at work. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 965-983. Abstract and references.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Building a hospital courtesy of Bernardo Fuller
Surgical team courtesy of ReSurge International
Humor in the hospital courtesy of USEmbassyPhnomPenh
Kindness courtesy of Viewminder

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1 comment

Judy Krings 28 March 2018 - 7:22 pm

Your leadership and strengths article was like a symphony to me. Having been on the staff as the only clinical psychologist for 3 decades at three hospitals, I was thrilled to see you focus on health care. Also, I remember General Schwarzkopf in his autobiography saying LOVE in the military was his key to empowering leaders. Glad to see HOPE here, too, as well as perseverance…heck, all your noted strengths put a smile on my face. Well done and many thanks!


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