What Health Care Leaders Can Learn From Monks

I thought I was pretty good at connecting the dots to make relevant connections between seemingly unrelated stories and experiences. That’s the thesis of this blog – connecting the general business press to relevant learnings for health care leaders. Well, August Turak has trumped me with his Forbes.com series entitled Business Secrets Of The Trappists – lessons gleaned from his many years of making primarily spiritual visits to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. Part 1 and Part 2 (of four) parts were published online on April 14 and the others are forthcoming on a daily basis later this week.


Of course, it’s only fair that I now use a wild card to one-up him by taking the connections between monks and business and extending them to relevant learnings for health care leaders.

Monastic Business Philosophy

In the essays, Turak codifies his observations on the Trappists’ agrarian businesses into seven aspects of success which are really the strategic themes underlying a managerial approach he terms “service and selflessness.” If you think this sounds way too self-denying to be the basis for a profitable business, you would be quite wrong. Turak observes that by following these business strategies, the monastic industries are not only profitable, highly leveraged, but also command premium pricing in the marketplace. You have to read the series!

Religion for Health Care Leaders?

It doesn’t take much twisting of the monks’ aspects into hhealthcareleadership strategies. I’ll quickly line them up for you using the aspect titles suggested by Turak:

Having a high overarching mission worthy of being served: For the Trappists ,it is serving God. Profit is a byproduct. It’s this mission focus that ultimately aligns the human and hard resources to ssucceed We’ve been taught over and over in management education that the vision and mission are absolute prerequisites for success. For healthcare leaders wishing to command an aligned following, the mission and vision must relate to something large and meaningful in order to truly motivate the most important asset – the workforce. So qualifying missions tend to be about serving patients, creating healthier communities, being an exporter of care excellence or process innovation or scientific advances.

Selflessness: For the monks ,it is about sself-denial silence, and solitude. That’s not for everyone. But promoting a culture of “mission above self” is achievable in the day to day healthcare workplace. Leaders of outstanding institutions have succeeded in obtaining ra esponse to a mmission-basedappeal that transcends salary and benefits and the 8 hour workday. I’ve seen it in countless successful hhealthcareorganizations – and I’ve seen the negative impact of failing to get beyond self-intereston hospital and medical practice success. If the workplace culture is “all about me,” it’s rarely all about the patient.

A commitment to excellence: The Trappists produce great product because every aspect of production involves a personal commitment to excellence: “At Mepkin Abbey every single egg is packed with a ‘prayerful attitude.’ Health care workers need not pray their way to excellence, but their hearts and minds need to be so committed. The task of the health care leader is demand, support, and encourage that level of commitment.

A ruthless dedication to the highest ethical standards: Turak doesn’t even comment on this one. It’s a given for the Trappists. But in health care, as in other secular industries, it’s not to be taken for granted. How can you preach selflessness, mission orientation, and commitment to excellence in an environment that is not ethically sound? Modeling ethical decision making and operations, even when it conflicts with politics or ego or pragmatism, sends a strong message to the organization’s critical human assets. Not to mention limiting liability for all.

Faith: For the Trappists it is religious and spiritual. I would reframe it as confidence for health care leaders. Confidence in the mission. Confidence in the workforce. Confidence in the strategy. Confidence in leadership’s ability to monitor progress and to change course if necessary. Without confidence that the job can be done, it simply can’t. In my coaching and consulting’ve experienced.

Trust: According to Turak, leaders must: “…continually amass and replenish their treasury with the most valuable capital that any individual, product or business can possess: trust.” In a high trust environment, colleagues, subordinates, and staff can collaborate without fear or distraction. Retention and productivity are enhanced. Stakeholders see value. Preoccupations with self interest and self protection are minimized and the focus is on getting the job done well. In a low trust environment, the opposites pertain.

Living the life: Or in our parlance, “walking the talk” of the preceding. As Turak puts it: “Service and selflessness are just words on a page without a rigorous methodology for constantly reinforcing these principles.” Health care leaders as much as any provide reinforcement by example. And torpedo success by failing to set example.

As a health care leader you need not go to the monestary, nunnery,synagogue, or church to get this religion. Just do it.