Leadership Lessons from Grey’s Anatomy

I don’t get a chance to watch TV often, but there are shows that I definitely make time to watch. Grey’s Anatomy is one such show. So on Thursday night I tuned in to catch the two-hour season premier of one of my favorite shows. Like many others, I watch TV shows to escape the daily realities of work, home, etc., so I certainly did not expect to catch a lesson in leadership development when I tuned into the Grey’s Anatomy for the season premier! For those that missed the show, there was a prevalent theme regarding leadership, and to what degree those with the best technical capabilities can rise to the occasion and make the best leaders.

The Grey’s Anatomy writers used a fictional “Gunther” exercise to exemplify this leadership theme. The “Gunther” exercise was suggested by attending physician, Dr. Miranda Bailey, to see how well the residents would work together to help save a patient’s life, and to see which one of the residents would reveal him or herself to be the leader (aka “Gunther). Chief Resident, Dr. April Kepner, who was selected last year because of her cool demeanor and expertise in handling crisis situations, had a difficult time getting any of her colleagues to listen to her; could not reinforce the use of standard operating/quality control procedures; and had little influence with them when it came to getting their cooperation or assistance in completing tasks. So who was the top contender for the “Gunther” designation? One would assume that Dr. Christina Yang, the resident prodigy, would be the obvious choice! After all, she was the most knowledgeable and skilled of all of the residents. Wouldn’t you want her to lead your surgical team if you ended up on the operating table? Shouldn’t she get to be the one that calls the shots? Well, if you picked Dr. Yang, then you were wrong. In fact, Dr. Yang crashed and burned in the leadership arena. “Gunther” turned out to be Dr. Avery Jackson, who wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen. Why? Because, although he’s a solid doctor, his skill as a surgeon isn’t exactly awe-inspiring.

As I watched this part of the storyline unfold, it occurred to me that this happens often in the real world. How many times have we erroneously assumed that just because one has positional authority that it makes him or her a good leader? How many times do we hire people based solely on of their technical skills and knowledge? How many times have you, as a hiring manager, written up a position description and requisite qualifications, and all of them had to do with skills and experience? Or, how often have we ignored leadership development for employees and focused only on those that have positional authority (i.e., first-line supervisors, mid-level managers, and executives)?

Given that government agencies are typically functionally organized, it is very easy to focus on hiring leaders that have high-levels of functional expertise. And I certainly don’t intend to communicate the message that functional expertise isn’t important. What I am saying, however, is that leadership: a) isn’t necessarily about those just in positional authority, and b) isn’t based solely on knowledge and ability, but has a large behavioral component as well — a component that is often ignored during selection, and rarely developed in employees who will ultimately assume leadership positions as they have more time in service. So all of this begs the question — what are the largest lessons that can be gleaned from this Grey’s Anatomy story line?

1. Leadership isn’t just about positional authority. It is something that can be demonstrated and developed at any level of the organization.

2. It is sometimes those that are not in positional authority that have the largest level of influence on a team or in an organization. This is especially important to remember when implementing large change initiatives. It is often those in positions of influence, and not necessarily positional authority, that can help an initiative succeed or shut it down.

3. When selecting leaders, technical skills are necessary, but not sufficient. It is important to determine what behavioral competencies are necessary for a potential leader to succeed in an organization from a mission execution and people management perspective.

4. In organizations that require a high degree of technical skill (e.g., medical professions, aeronautics, finance, etc.), it is important to differentiate between career paths for those that only desire to be technical experts versus those that have the capability and desire to be leaders. In bureaucracies like federal government agencies where promotion to leadership is in large part based on time in service, it is easy to have a large number of employees at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels who are functional experts, but don’t desire, or have the competencies, to be good team leaders or people managers. For those agencies that are able, it could be a good idea to have multiple career paths in their job series, which would facilitate planning for selection, development and promotion purposes.

5. One should not be awarded a leadership position just based on technical proficiency alone or time in service, just as one should not be blocked from obtaining management/leadership positions just because they aren’t the best technical expert or haven’t been with the agency since the agency’s creation. This phenomena is clear even in sports. How many of the great professional NBA players, such as Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird, have had awful coaching careers; while less revered players such as Pat Riley (L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat), Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls) and Doc Rivers (Boston Celtics) have led teams to NBA championships? They may not have been the best in the game as players, but when it came to leading teams to victories as coaches, they were all stars.

Does this mean that all of us need to go out and have a “Gunther” exercise like the characters in Grey’s Anatomy to see which people will crash and burn, or rise to the top as leaders? Not exactly. However, it does suggest that we must go beyond old assumptions about what makes a good manager or leader — those things that are easier to measure, thereby minimizing leadership selection, development and promotion to “checking the box.” As it stands, leadership development is almost an exercise in segregation in that we limit our leadership development to those that are already in leadership positions. What the Gunther exercise should tell us is that there should be more equal opportunity in our leadership development programs because the people that rise to the top could be those that you least expect.

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Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

Some really great points here! It’s especially important we pay attention to the fact that while technical expertise is important in functional leadership roles, it is by no means sufficient. Often the most skilled are not good leaders. Leadership skills have to be considered when promoting supervisors and managers

Andrew Krzmarzick

Big fan of Grey’s and Private Practice. Even if I weren’t, I’d say this: awesome post! Seriously, it might be one of my Top 10 Favorites of All Time on GovLoop. Great analysis of the show and excellent lessons for “leading at an level.” Another key take-away is that every one must be prepared to step up to lead at a time that is unexpected. It’s those pivotal, unscripted moments when a person shines and reveal true leadership qualities…and those are the kinds of folks we should challenge again to see if they’re capable of replicating that success.

By the way, I’d be interested in a follow-up post on the actions taken by Chief Weber to absorb the blame for Meredith Grey so that she could retain her job and her child. What kind of leader would risk his/her career for a subordinate like that? Someone exceptional, I think….here’s how one recap puts it:

Not only did he completely call Derek out for continuing to punish Meredith, but he took the fall for Mer, giving her her job back and allowing himself to spend more time with his wife. Plus he avoided jeopardizing his own clinical trial by subsequently giving it to Miranda. Yay Chief! Gold star for you!

Matthew Wayne Gonzales

Definitely one of the best posts that I have had the fortune of reading. I swear I felt like I was in a management class while reading that! Outstanding points, and inspired or realized by a very unsuspecting show, one that I have honestly never seen. Your take-aways, Erin, are right on point and please believe me when I say that I even wrote a few of these leadership lessons down. Thank you! Double Awesome.

Erin Duggins

Glad that you guys liked the post. Nothing better than to tie what you do to the TV shows you watch.

I’ll gladly take on that assignment for a follow up Andy! I have actually been thinking about that, so I’ll jot some thoughts down.

Glynnis Shane

This was an excellent article regarding leadership and how you may not be the leader by title but by your actions you can take the role of the leader. I have not seen the episode yet it is on my DVR so I cannot wait to check it out. I will also be sharing this article with several team members as we go thru leadership training at my agency.