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Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling: ‘Leadership is about building hope’ | Lessons for Leaders


He talks about the importance of generating optimism and inspiring teams to be a part of something bigger.

Michael Dowling says optimism is an essential component of leadership.

Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, speaks at a forum on preventing gun violence. (Photo by Kelly Williams, courtesy of Northwell Health)

Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, speaks at a forum on preventing gun violence. (Photo by Kelly Williams, courtesy of Northwell Health)

Dowling, the longtime president and CEO of Northwell Health, says leaders must communicate a vision to their employees. Organizations need to see bigger possibilities and leaders must generate enthusiasm, even in the face of challenges.

“People look for those who want to talk about the possibility of a better future. People follow those that are optimistic,” Dowling tells Chief Healthcare Executive®.

In a recent interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Dowling talks about the importance of optimism, why leaders must look beyond their organizations, engaging with staff and constantly striving for new goals.

“Leadership is about building hope,” he says. “You know, it's about giving oxygen to hope, it's about convincing people that over the horizon, there is something better. That's what leadership is about.”

(See part of our conversation with Michael Dowling in this video. The story continues below.)

‘You’ve got to take risks’

Dowling has served in his role longer than most healthcare leaders. He took over as president and CEO of Northwell in 2002. The New York health system operates 21 hospitals, nearly 900 outpatient facilities, and employs a workforce of more than 83,000 people.

Even with more than two decades in the post, Dowling exudes unmistakable enthusiasm, even restlessness, as he looks to the future.

“I'm not one who believes that you should be a spectator in the sport of life,” Dowling says. “You've got to be in the ring, you know, playing the game, and playing the game for the right reason, and inspiring people to think about how they should be dreaming about the future.”

Dowling says leaders need to embrace challenges and inspire their teams to meet them.

“People want to belong to something,” he says. “People want to feel that it is a connection to something that is bigger than them. And I think leaders have to lead there.”

Too many leaders are simply following, he says.

“Our political leaders are not out saying about what can be positive,” Dowling says. “They're following. They’re responding to the lowest common denominator. They're reflecting on people's dislike, people's prejudice, people's outrage, and they feed it.

“A good leader takes them beyond it, and gets him to think about something more important, in fact, for the future, the broader community,” he says.

While Dowling stresses the importance of offering a positive vision, he’s hardly advocating that leaders should play it safe.

“They’ve got to be out front, and you’ve got to take risks,” Dowling says. “And you've got to be willing to take some criticism.”

Dowling has taken a lead role in tackling gun violence and has urged other healthcare leaders to address the issue. He says many employees were excited about the fact that Northwell was taking action on such an important issue, especially since gun violence is the leading cause of death among children in America.

Leaders must look beyond their own organizations and at improving their surrounding communities, he says. “Corporate leadership, healthcare leadership, has a major, major responsibility in this regard,” Dowling says.

“There's some criticism that corporate leaders should be not doing this, that their job is, you know, the business of business … I disagree with them,” Dowling says.

Leaders must possess a long-term view of the future that goes beyond the organization, he continues.

“You have a role to make sure your organization works well,” Dowling says. “But you have a role and I believe an obligation and responsibility, because of the influence that you have, because you have a leadership position, that influence has to be used to improve the community around you.

“It's not just our local communities,” he adds. “It's our regional communities and the national community.”

‘Be exhilarated by what can be’

Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dowling says Northwell’s leaders sought to engage with staff and support them. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, New York was the epicenter of the virus, and Dowling said he and other Northwell leaders aimed to stay visible.

“We were out in the facilities all the time, so the staff knew all during COVID that we were with them,” Dowling says. “We didn't disappear. We didn't hide. We were out there with them. They were part of the team, and we were part of the team with them to make things better.”

Again, Dowling describes his approach in dealing with the pandemic with optimism.

“COVID was something that happened,” he says. “So you can sit around and whine about why it happened. Or you can basically have the attitude that no matter how bad it is, we're going to deal with it. So all during COVID, we had a very optimistic view.”

Dowling says he works to stay engaged with staff, which means he’s talking regularly with frontline workers. He meets with staff every morning, and in the previous two months, Dowling says he’s held 15 town hall meetings.

He meets with new hires each week. Once a month, Dowling says he’ll take 25 employees out to dinner.

In engaging with staff, Dowling says there’s an opportunity to get people excited about the organization’s mission.

Leaders should “not be confounded by what is, but be exhilarated by what can be,” Dowling says. “Leadership, by its very nature, I believe, should be optimistic.”

‘Leadership is about aiming high’

Now, Dowling says he wants Northwell to take the lessons of the pandemic as the system moves forward.

“COVID demonstrated innovation at a very high level,” he says. “It demonstrated resilience and grit. In many ways, COVID demonstrated what we're really made of. And we're trying to continue to instill what we learned during COVID. If we can continue that creativity going forward, it’s a positive.”

“The culture of the organization here is to be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” he says, “not to be pessimistic about what might happen, but to be optimistic about the good that will happen.”

Looking ahead, Dowling says he’s anxious to see what innovations can occur beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Leadership is about aiming high,” Dowling says. “And when you get to your target, raise the bar. That's what leadership is about: constantly raising the bar. You'll inspire people to go above and beyond what they think is possible.

“And when you push that way, it's amazing what people will find out they can do that they didn't think they could do,” he says.

Coming tomorrow: Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling talks about his work to reduce gun violence

(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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