Leonard Lopate and Team Leadership

When we discuss the feasibility of team training in health care, many medical professionals insist that the aviation safety model can never be applied to the healthcare workplace.  Why?  Because those who work in hospitals and other health care institutions may never have never worked together before and the time constraints of much healthcare work makes teamwork difficult if not impossible.

Well, Patrick Mendenhall and I just had an experience, which shows how well strangers can create teamwork in a short of amount of time, if they have a good team leader and have rehearsed it in other settings.

On Wednesday April 24th, Patrick and I were guests on the Leonard Lopate show, on WNYC/NPR radio talking about our book Beyond the Checklist: What Else Health Care Can Learn from Aviation Teamwork and Safety .  Leonard Lopate has been a radio interviewer for 28 years and Patrick and I have had a lot of experience working with teamwork.  As I sat in Leonard Lopate’s New York City Studio, Patrick was patched in from Tacoma, Washington and was thus a disembodied voice coming over the airwaves.

All of us were virtual strangers. We  had exactly 40 minutes together and it could have gone very badly.   But we had a skilled team leader – Leonard Lopate – who made sure to give us crucial information that enhanced the performance.  Before we went on air,  in just a few moments of small talk with me, Lopate set the tone.  The small talk functioned to make me feel comfortable.  Even though I have done hundreds of radio interviews, it was really helpful.

Once we were on air, it became more difficult to navigate with one person in the room and one coming through the headset.  Patrick couldn’t see either me or Leonard Lopate, and couldn’t read the visual cues that I had as I watched the interviewer in front of me.  It was clear when Leonard Lopate wanted to ask another question or move on.  To me, but not to Patrick.

At one of the breaks, Lopate said, “Listen Suzanne, if you want to ask Patrick something or feel he might have something to add, don’t hesitate.  Feel free to interrupt.  I am not a control freak.”

That was a liberating moment.  Leonard Lopate was the captain of this particular ship. It would have been uncomfortable for me to interrupt him and suggest that Patrick might want to speak to a particular issue. What he did was turn us all into a quick team.  He didn’t just listen, he solicited input.   Not only by asking questions but by giving me permission to invite my colleague sitting across the country to make a comment.

Being a good team leader didn’t mean that Lopate wasn’t a tough interviewer who threw us softballs (he is known, after all, for his astute questioning).  What he exhibited was what we call Team Intelligence (TI).

Lopate had a very short amount of time with us.  A big radio star, he could have arrogantly put us in our place and kept us there.  Instead, he exhibited what the airlines industry calls “mature authority.”  He used everyone’s expertise and was thus able to touch on many relevant issues and raise controversial questions in a short amount of time.  Of course, no one’s life depended on the outcome of a radio show.  But there are lessons to be learned here, and those in healthcare should take note.

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