Dedicated to molding new leaders
When asked what keeps him going after more than 50 years in the field of healthcare management education, John Griffith will tell you, “Opportunity inspires me. I like to see students get better. I like to see hospitals succeed. I like to see problems get solved.”
As the man who literally wrote the book on the topic, Griffith is recognized for his quantitative approach in helping healthcare organizations, and their future leaders, to institute the best practices that lead to higher performance and cultures of empowerment.
Griffith’s widely used textbook, The Well-Managed Healthcare Organization, outlines a leadership culture that promotes teamwork and emphasizes the need for continuous improvement in the hospital setting. Originally published in 1987, the book is now in its seventh edition, and many still consider it to be the most comprehensive resource in the field. It’s also a past winner of the James A. Hamilton Award for book of the year from the American College of Healthcare Executives.
For Griffith, though, a publication called Quantitative Techniques for Hospital Planning and Control (published in 1972) is the one he’s most proud of. It focuses on medical quality, measuring market share and forecasting demand, which he says were relatively unexplored territories at the time. Though most of the ideas in that particular work are now out of date, Griffith said, he believes the book helped to give structure to the current approach to healthcare management. “It started the process and got a lot of people thinking,” he said. “We were more ready than we would have been without that work.”
“He has an absolute unwavering drive to produce leaders for the field who understand that management is both art and science.”
For his efforts tackling the complexities of healthcare management, and for five decades of providing academic instruction to future generations of healthcare leaders, Griffith, 80, is one of this year’s inductees to Modern Healthcare’s Health Care Hall of Fame.
Currently professor emeritus, he last served as the Andrew Pattullo collegiate professor in the department of health management and policy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he had been on the faculty since 1960. He’s also a consultant to numerous private and public organizations. As the author of more than a dozen textbooks, he had no shortage of material to shape his curricula, but his main focus has been to help both graduate students and practicing healthcare executives translate book knowledge into actual applications.
“A textbook does not impart skills, it imparts facts,” Griffith said. “To teach students skills you have to get them to apply what is in the textbook.”
Former students recall real-world application as being a major priority in Griffith’s classroom.
“The skills in the textbook taught us how to use science to solve the problems, but when in the real world, a great deal of art must be applied,” said Peter Butler, president and chief operating officer at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and one of Griffith’s nominators for the award. “The culture of an organization can derail the best-laid plans. He helped teach us how to bridge the gap between the science and art of managing.”
Butler said Griffith saw each encounter with a student as a new opportunity to shape the future. “Whether in the classroom or in the various forums in which he leads or participates, he is a role model for helping us work on the right things with the right values guiding our decisions.” Another former student offered similar observations. “He has an absolute unwavering drive to produce leaders for the field who understand that management is both art and science,” said Wayne Lerner, former president and CEO of Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago and past president of Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He now serves as chairman of a center named for his teacher: the Griffith Leadership Center at the University
of Michigan, which aims to bridge the gap between academia and practice.
Lerner, who attended the University of Michigan as a graduate student from 1971-73, remembers Griffith as having a “hard edge,” and says the professor would sit with his feet propped on the desk while attentively focusing on each student’s presentation. If Griffith thought a student was not measuring up to his or her true potential, Lerner jokingly recalls that the professor would offer “choice words.” But that was also part of what made him such a great teacher, Lerner said.
“It was his way of saying to step back, think about what you’re saying and don’t take the easy way out,” Lerner said. “He wanted us to stand up to the challenge. He forced us to think about the events that were unfolding in our lives.”
Griffith, born in Baltimore, was the only child of Eleanor Bond Griffith, a schoolteacher, and Richard Robinson Griffith, an administrator in a Delaware hospital for more than 25 years.
He entered Johns Hopkins University as an industrial engineering student in the 1950s, and remembers working on a project where he counted pedestrian traffic at the front door of the hospital to explore ways of improving traffic flow. He later went on to study hospital administration at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1957.
Over the years, Griffith has published more than 50 research papers in various peerreviewed public health, healthcare management and leadership journals, in addition to the books he has authored or co-authored.
He also is a past chairman of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration, a former commissioner for what is now called the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education, and from 2001 to 2007 he was senior adviser to the governing board of the National Center for Healthcare Leadership.
Griffith is no stranger to industry recognition. He is a 2002 recipient of the Gary L. Filerman Prize for Educational Leadership from the AUPHA, a winner of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s Book of the Year in 2000 and a three-time honoree of the Dean Conley Award for article of the year, to name just a few.
Despite his many accomplishments, Griffith said he is always looking for new challenges. He is working to develop a multimedia app that can help students apply textbook knowledge in a virtual hospital setting. After that, he hopes to author a multimedia course for people who want to master the management of healthcare organizations.
His continued drive is not surprising to former students. “He lives, eats and breathes healthcare leadership,” Lerner said. “He is someone who is committed to making healthcare the best that it can be, and he understands that his ability to affect the system is through the pipeline of students entering the field.”
Butler agreed, saying, “I believe he has reinforced that healthcare management is a profession unto itself.”
To make the profession stronger, Butler said his former professor and mentor is constantly refreshing his own thinking, writings, opinions and approaches, just as he encourages each of his students to do.
Perhaps to truly understand what motivates Griffith, it helps to be familiar with the children’s tune “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” The song describes an inquisitive bear who traveled from his home to the other side of a mountain to “see what he could see.” The lyrics also take the curious bear over a river, through a valley, across a meadow ... and as many other locations as a child’s imagination can ponder.
“That’s basically what I’ve done,” Griffith said, citing the song. “I’ve gone from one problem to the next, to the next and to the next, seeing what we can do to make it work better.”
Griffith, the author of healthcare management textbooks still considered the gold standard in the industry, has been a fixture at book signings.
Griffith, right, with Wolverine State colleague Gail Warden, a longtime CEO of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit who’s also in the Hall of Fame.