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Keith Gray of University of Tennessee Medical Center talks about ‘servant leadership’ | Lessons for Leaders


The president of UT Medical Center will take over as CEO in the spring. He discusses the idea that people can lead in any role, finding solutions, and the development of a leadership academy for physicians.

Keith Gray, the new president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center, will add another title in the near future.

Keith Gray, left, the president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center, will take over as chief executive officer in April. Longtime CEO Joe Landsman plans to retire next spring but is working to ensure a smooth transition. (Photo: UTMC)

Keith Gray, left, the president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center, will take over as chief executive officer in April. Longtime CEO Joe Landsman plans to retire next spring but is working to ensure a smooth transition. (Photo: UTMC)

Gray will take over as chief executive officer of the UT Medical Center in April 2024, when longtime CEO Joe Landsman retires. Gray, previously the chief medical officer, began serving as president on July 1.

He wants to strengthen patient care and improve health outcomes in Tennessee, which trails most states in many health metrics. He also is focused on recruiting and retention, closing disparities in outcomes among underserved groups, and improving the patient experience.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Gray says, “One of the things I want to offer to this organization is a culture of servant leadership.”

“It's all about others,” he says. “And for us, in this industry, it's all about the patients. And if you're in a situation and doing the right thing for the patient, most often it’s the right thing to do.”

(See part of our discussion with Keith Gray in this video. The story continues below.)

‘Lead from any area’

For Gray, servant leadership involves solving problems, being a person of high integrity and also possessing “a high emotional intelligence.”

Gray says true servant leadership doesn’t require a lofty title.

“You can lead from any area,” he says.

Gray talks about the importance of ensuring that all team members feel valued and can play a leadership role in helping the organization.

“For someone that may be a part of our facilities team that is responsible for maintaining our grounds, I see them as a first impression specialist,” he says. “A patient drives up to our campus, and our campus is shabby, and they may think, wow, the work that we do on the inside is shabby.

“So they have an opportunity to create that first impression that then helps that patient decide if they're going to stay or go to another place.”

Developing solutions

Gray joined UT Medical Center as a surgical oncologist in 2007, and he shares another lesson he learned earlier in his career.

“I came here, and really still am passionate about cancer care,” Gray says. “And really this administrative role and responsibility and the escalation of my career grew out of solving problems. I had a chance to meet my CEO three months after my arrival with some challenges that I was experiencing in the clinical setting. And he basically said, ‘If you develop a solution, I'll support you.’”

“It taught me two things: Never come with a problem without a proposed solution, and number two, a leader's job is to really support the people that he or she leads, not to have all the answers. And so that was a key takeaway.”

Landsman, the system’s CEO, eventually became a mentor to Gray for years.

“He's really just walked me through the development process and allowed me to be a candidate for this job,” Gray says.

Fostering leadership

In 2012, when Gray was chief of staff of UT Medical Center, he had a realization.

“I knew pretty quickly that I didn't have the administrative or the leadership skills required to be the leader that the organization or the medical staff needed,” Gray says. “I had been promoted based on my clinical acumen and accomplishments. But, you know, the skill sets don't necessarily overlap.”

“I knew in that moment that I didn't want other medical staff leaders to be in a similar position, and feel the way that I felt, unprepared for that position,” he says.

So Gray worked with others at the medical center and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to develop the Physician Leadership Academy. He says the program is tailored to physicians moving up into administrative roles.

The program includes lessons on reading balance sheets and understanding change management. Physicians learn about developing and knowing their own leadership style, how to negotiate, and building support among teams.

“More than anything, it put a group of leaders in the room that developed relationships with each other that then could solve problems together,” says Gray, who completed the program.

Even with some of the huge responsibilities and huge challenges ahead, including improving patient outcomes and the organization’s bottom line, Gray says he’s very excited about his new role.

Gray says he’s learned that at the executive level, “you're in the wicked hard, problem-solving business.”

“Once you have that mentality, that you're here to remove barriers for the patients, for the team and for the community, then it gets a lot easier, and you get a lot more excited about the work ahead,” he says. “So I am excited.”

(This is an ongoing series. If you’d like to submit your lessons in leadership in healthcare, great advice you’ve received, or insights you wish you had earlier, submit an idea for our “Lessons for Leaders” series. Email Ron Southwick, senior editor of Chief Healthcare Executive: [email protected])

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