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On Leadership: Spence Taylor

Dr. Spence Taylor, M.D, is the CEO of Integral Leaders in Health, a public benefit corporation created to support the betterment of communities at large and operate in a responsible and sustainable manner.

A nationally recognized academic physician leader with 30 years of experience as a senior executive, surgeon, full professor and researcher, Taylor previously served as president of the Greenville Health System (GHS) -- now a part of Prisma Health. He was the only physician to be named president in the 107-year history of GHS -- a health system at the time of his leadership with nearly $3 billion in annual operating revenue, eight hospitals, 1,600 beds, 2,000 employed providers, 16,000 employees and an emerging academic health center.

Taylor is the recipient of multiple teaching awards and the author or co-author of more than 120 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters. Additionally, Taylor often lectures across the country on clinical outcomes as well as the role of physicians as leaders in medicine and patient care.

In 100 words or less, define what leadership means to you?

Leadership is about driving change—leading others that lead the leaders of processes— as opposed to management which is about coping with (organizational) complexity—leading the leaders of processes. Leaders, therefore, lead people by motivation and a shared vision for a better reality where managers lead processes. Processes are the mechanism by which that better reality happens. Strategically, leaders focus on vision/purpose which creates shared beliefs and relationships (also known as culture). These drive performance (change). For leaders, it’s never directly about performance. It is always about vision/purpose and culture. Vision/purpose and culture always deliver performance.

How has the idea of leadership changed over the years of your career?

I have come to appreciate that leadership is a developmental journey—akin to one’s spiritual journey—aided by “crucible events”—events often experienced as life failures at the time. Such experiences usually create disorder in how we see the world (and thus how we operate)—exposing our worldview as flawed (even fake). Death of that worldview allows for re-order where new, broader worldviews emerge. Such broader worldviews invite integral ways of leading: “creating one from many for the service of all.” That is the leadership journey— a journey that took me years to appreciate.

In your opinion, are certain people born natural leaders or can you train someone to be a great leader?

Since we are all born and destined to take the leadership journey, we are all natural born leaders. Leadership, in my experience, is combination of our personality traits which are firmly established by the time we are young adults and our ontological worldview—our “way of being” in the world—which evolves over our lifetime and may fluctuate from moment to moment. The key to leadership then, is real-time awareness of our personality traits in action and our worldview when we show up to lead. Awareness training, then, is essential—and can be coached.

Tell us about one leader who inspired early in your career?

I was trained in the autocratic leadership world of general and vascular surgery by Dr. Michael E. DeBakey and E. Stanley Crawford at Baylor in Houston (classic autocratic leaders). Autocratic leaders have their place—especially in the complex and crisis prone world of cardiac and vascular surgery. But in a world without crisis, autocratic leaders often struggle. It took years for me to “unlearn” my autocratic leadership up-bringing. I give Mike Riordan, my CEO at the Greenville Health System (who introduced me to conscious leadership), credit for doing that.

What is the difference between a boss and a leader? Are they interchangeable?

Leadership has very little to do with authority (being the boss). The greatest and most influential leaders of all time were not ‘bosses’ of individuals. In fact, they had no official authority at all. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan (who some credit for starting Postmodernism in America during the 1960’s) and of course, Jesus of Nazareth come to mind. Bosses who equate authority with leadership often struggle. This sometimes includes bosses promoted into leadership because they excelled in their jobs as managers. On the other hand, Mike Riordan was my boss. And he was inspirational. So, in my experience, bosses and leaders are not interchangeable. In fact, they are completely unrelated.

What is the biggest attribute that a leader needs?

I believe the biggest attribute that a leader needs is awareness: both self-awareness (the ability to objectively see yourself as you are leading) and situational awareness (understanding the type of leadership needed during particular situations). In my experience, many leaders surprisingly lack awareness and even an awareness of their unawareness. And some never gain it. Others (including myself) can lose awareness during certain challenging situations. Master leaders have extraordinary anticipatory awareness and are totally self-aware. They are amazing to watch.

Any person quote you can share on leadership? This can be your own or something you read.

I admire and often quote the saying by leadership authors William Adams and Robert Anderson:

“In leadership, the inner game always runs the outer game.”

(Purpose & culture always drives performance/ productivity/change).

To me, this is a leadership quote to live by.


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