What Can the Chicago Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville Teach Healthcare Executives about Leadership?

June 17, 2015
Beyond facile sports anecdotes and well-worn metaphors, it turns out that really great professional sports coaching does actually have a lot in common with really great healthcare leadership and management

When the Chicago Blackhawks skated to Stanley Cup victory on home ice at the United Center in downtown Chicago on Sunday evening, ‘Hawks fans went wild—understandably—and the talk of “dynasty” was everywhere. After all, the Blackhawks had won North American ice hockey’s ultimate championship three times in six years—this year now, as well as in 2010 and 2013—an astonishing record of achievement in a highly demanding, indeed, often grueling, team sport.

What struck me, though, was how, in post-game interviews with players, the players one after another lauded coach Joel Quenneville, and spoke of their deep admiration for him and for how he had consistently fostered teamness and shared purpose on the team, even through wrenching times.

Patrick Kane hugs Joel Quenneville (Toronto Sun)
Joel Quenneville holds the Stanley Cup aloft (AP)

A June 2 article by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun spoke of some of the very recent troubles the Blackhawks have been through. Simmons noted that, “On the way to this season’s Stanley Cup final, the Blackhawks family was rocked with the December suicide of assistant equipment manager Clint Reif. And then that was followed by the stunning death of former Hawk Steve Montador. The team was deeply affected by the tragedies. Some teams wouldn’t have thrived under those complex and challenging circumstances. ‘We’ve had some tough moments,’ Quenneville admitted. “But this team finds a way to rely on each other through tough moments. We’ve got a way to get back on track.’”

Simmons went on to write, “They have a coach they can rely on. ‘When you have a guy on your side who has Joel’s experience and has been through these kind of things, it helps,; said Duncan Keith, the Hawks’ stalwart defenseman. ‘I was thinking about all this the other day, and how crazy it’s all been with the death of friends. You’ve got to be able to find strength through this. You need your leadership.’ ‘If anything,’ said Patrick Sharp, ‘this has brought us closer together ... This still gets talked about a lot in our locker room. Joel helps us in a lot of different ways, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice. Whatever the situation. Joel is there to support us.’”

Quenneville really is an exceptional coach, on a number of levels. He is a man who I’ve never seen act in an unprofessional, undignified, or ungentlemanly way. It was interesting to read an article published on ESPN.com on June 6, by NHL reporter Scott Burnside.  The focus of Burnside’s article was looking at the contrasts in coaching methods and styles between Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Quenneville of the Blackhawks, going into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Interestingly, Cooper has never had significant experience as a hockey player beyond participation on Hofstra University’s club hockey team, while Quenneville played 803 NHL games before transitioning into coaching (and he even kept playing during his first season as a coach).

In any case, Marc Crawford, who had been head coach of the St. John’s Maple Leafs when Quenneville served as player/coach there during the 1991-92 season, told Burnside this: “I can’t say enough about Joel as a person. He’s a great guy. I think far too little is given to that part of it. When they’re just good people that’s probably 70 or 80 percent of what makes coaches special. Most often when you see a head coach talking to his assistant on the bench he’s asking ‘what just happened?’ on a particular play,” Crawford said. Not so much Quenneville. “He has unbelievable vision on the bench to see the game,” Crawford said. “It’s remarkable, it’s like he actually has a videotape in his mind. That’s such a valuable tool to be able to see the game.” He is also, Burnside noted,  “by nature more closed and private. In his meetings with reporters, he gives little away other than the occasional twinkle in his eye or wry grin.”

Most interesting in Burnside’s article is the section in which he interviews players and fellow coaches about Quenneville’s coaching.  “In my opinion, Joel’s the best coach in the National Hockey League,” said Kelly Chase, who played for Quenneville years ago in St. Louis. “For me, the greatest trait about him was I knew what my role was, and he never questioned my role. He trusted my judgment was good enough to handle the situation. That was how he was with all his players,” Chase added.

Burnside, in his article, describes NHL coaches as being of two major types: “players’ coaches” and “hardline, go-to-the-whip” coaches. Asked how he would characterize Quenneville, Rick Dudley, a longtime player, coach, scout and general manager who was with the Blackhawks organization when Quenneville was named head coach, said, “I would say Joel’s a hybrid. It’s a very difficult line to straddle, but he does it well,” Dudley added, noting that “A lot of coaches are hard on players all the time. Those coaches have a shelf life. It works when you win, but you lose the ear of the room when you lose.”

Now, I know that in the business world, people constantly draw analogies from the sports world all the time. I myself have heard countless speeches and presentations at conferences that have led off with sports stories, anecdotes, and metaphors. But here’s the thing: from observing him in press conferences in recent years, as well as of course watching Blackhawks games live and on television, it is clear to me that Joel Quenneville really is an exceptional coach, one who somehow holds the absolute key to great coaching—and that is that careful balance between rigor and support, between setting demanding standards and mentoring, that great leaders and executives in healthcare and other industries know how to achieve as well as sports coaches do.

Indeed, it seems to me that now is a particularly challenging time to be a healthcare senior executive, at a time of intense healthcare system change, and a rapid uptake in terms of the shift towards the new healthcare—the emerging healthcare system involving accountable care, population health, value-based care delivery and reimbursement, avoidable readmissions reduction, and so many other new phenomena.

Healthcare leaders, including senior healthcare IT leaders, will need to combine rigor and supportiveness, to help lead their teams and their organizations forward into the future. The healthcare system is changing so rapidly now that an older management style that once worked well in many situations—a kind of custodial administrative style—simply no longer works. At the same time, healthcare is a unique industry, with patient care at its core—that will always keep it different from services industries like retailing, airlines, transportation, and manufacturing.

So the only way forward will be for senior leaders and executives in healthcare, including CIOs, CMIOs, and others, to become firm-yet-flexible guides for their colleagues in their patient care organizations. The healthcare delivery system, under intense pressure from the purchasers, payers, and consumers of healthcare, is being forced to change rapidly, and that mandates rigor in management and leadership. Yet at the same time, changing the culture of the patient care delivery world will require a certain kind of nurturance as well, not to mention the oft-referenced “servant-leadership” style of leadership.

So when it comes to leading teams of one’s colleagues into the new healthcare, one could do far worse than to look to Joel Quenneville and what he has achieved with the Chicago Blackhawks. Because his extraordinary management and leadership style really could optimally translate to a healthcare equivalent.

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