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Key Attributes of Senior Health Executives

Key Attributes of Senior Health Executive 3

Key Attributes of Senior Health Executives, and Tips for Aspiring Leaders — by Senior Health Executives

Professor Erwin Loh, Paul Long, and Wayne Bruce

For healthcare organisations to rise to the challenges they will face over the next 10 years, collective and innovative approaches will be required from healthcare leaders, executives, managers and clinicians. They will need to adopt and demonstrate expertise in leadership; to create and innovate with purpose; collaborate across boundaries and have the capacity to adapt and act strategically.

Health executives must promote a shift in thinking about the complexity of the health system, and workforce design and planning. This thinking should centre on, and be driven by, the needs of stakeholders at all levels of the system in order to optimise outcomes for consumers and communities. Organisations need to put the patient at the centre of everything they do, while ensuring that staff feel valued, respected, engaged and supported, in order to improve systems and nurture care cultures (Dixon-Woods, 2014).

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant disruption to business and working life is more complex and challenging than ever. The health system is even more unpredictable, ambiguous and volatile than usual, and health executives must be agile and practise adaptive leadership in order to meet the current challenges.

To that end, we asked 40 of Australia’s top CEO and senior leaders in healthcare and academia about their views on the key attributes that are important for senior executives and aspiring leaders in health. In-depth interviews were held with each of the participants. There were 13 CEOs, 6 academic leaders, and the rest senior health executives.

There were four broad themes that these leaders agree are important attributes for senior health executives.


People skills — A successful senior health executive is not just a usual ‘good communicator’. Senior executives need to be able to influence and bring people with them. This includes communicating with people at all levels of the organisation – both staff and patients. The ability to understand the disparate players and be able to negotiate the many tensions and agendas at play is key. There must be strong engagement with stakeholders. Sitting in your office just isn’t going to cut it! This point is an interesting one as many offices are under lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and senior leaders have had to work from home. Despite these restrictions, a competent health executive will continue to meet with peers and team members, even if it is
in the virtual setting, to maintain relationships and to keep in touch with those that he or she works with, and leads.

Embrace diversity — The health executive celebrates diversity because different points of view provide a richer tapestry of experience and expertise to the team so that optimum results can be achieved. The best teams have diversity in gender, age, sexual preference, colour and thinking. Working in a range of organisations on the way up and knowing how to bring in a diversity of viewpoints as you rise up the ladder is a skill to develop.

Values and Character

Be values-driven — Health care executives need to live their values. They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Leadership needs to be values-based, and be founded on strong ethics. If you come at health leadership from just a commercial perspective you run the risk of failing people when they entrust you with their health care needs. Living out your values means patients and their families see that you are there to serve them and that they are not a means to an end.

Emotional resilience and vulnerability — Senior executives need to recognise that they do not know everything, and they must be willing to listening to colleagues and continually learn. They need to put aside their ego and develop an ability to reflect and have insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. Resilience in the face of stress is crucial for health leaders, as the health system is complex and difficult to manage in the best of times.

Intellectual curiosity and be innovative — Health leaders must be open to trying new things. They need to be curious, adaptable and adaptive and have an entrepreneurial spirit that is able to tolerate risk in order to experiment with new innovative ideas in the context of a health system that tends to be conservative and risk-averse, especially in the public health space.

Systems Thinking

Having a systems perspective — Health leaders need to learn to work in ambiguity. Dixon-Woods (2014) found that a failure to understand the complexity and exercise nuanced leadership led to different perceptions of quality and safety problems and their solutions at the blunt end and the sharp end of organisations. In the NHS, lack of support, appreciation and respect, as well as not being consulted and listened to, were reported as endemic problems by staff in some organisations (Dixon- Woods, 2014).

Creating a culture that is less deferential and permission focused, and where staff are actively encouraged to challenge the prevailing norm, will require a change in the traditional dynamic between organisational perspectives. There must be a willingness of all parties to share accountability, between clinical and managerial perspectives. This joint responsibility for setting the
organisational culture should facilitate further enhanced and sustained culture of high performance.

High-level thinking in terms of strategy, developments, future, and building capacity, particularly organisational development, is essential for the high performing health leader. Balancing this with a watchful eye on the day to day operations is also required so that you learn how to switch between being strategic to being operational.


Own your success — To be a recognised health leader, you must establish a track record of achievements, with demonstrated capacity to succeed in your chosen field of expertise. To achieve this, ensure you deliver in your roles, meet and exceed expectations, and be confident of your successes without being arrogant.


This article was written by Professor Erwin Loh, Paul Long and Wayne Bruce; initially printed in the RACMA magazine “The Quarterly” which can be found online here.

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