What Jon Stewart Can Teach Us About Leading a Health Care Team

Last night I watched Jon Stewart’s farewell episode, and I reflected on why I have been such a fan for the past 13 years (I have watched every episode since January 2003).  I was of course struck by the string of political opponents willing to go on camera to say goodbye to an adversary, and I was blown away by the plethora of former correspondents who returned to the studio to gather for a group hug.  And while I will forever be thankful for Jon’s ability to help make sense of the tragicomedy of current events (or, as he put it, to help us spot bulls**t in the world), I think his most lasting impact on me has been how to lead a large organization.

Jon’s lessons on leadership are directly applicable to running a health care team, something that you, dear reader, will face in the coming years.  But they can also be applied to leading just about anything else, from how to run your student group to how to handle your roommates.  And obviously, Jon Stewart was a master practitioner of these principles, so understand that these are ideals to strive for rather than easy-to-implement tips in the short term.


The following four lessons may constitute the Jon Stewart Model of Leadership:


1. Never take the credit.  When presented with praise from correspondents, guests, or pretty much anyone else, Jon always demurred.  Jon knew what role he had played in creating the show and delivering a performance.  He was satisfied with his own recognition of that performance and didn’t need the external validation from others, preferring to pass it along to his staff or deflect the praise altogether.


You shouldn’t need to take credit to be proud of what you accomplished.  Passing credit along to others, especially those who are not as visible as you at the top of the team, is a classy move, one that will help engender loyalty and good will among your team.


2. Understand the value of diverse contributions.  One of the most remarkable aspects of the correspondents over the years has been the increasingly diverse viewpoints they brought to the table.  When Jon took over the Daily Show the correspondents were all white (at least, according to the appearance of the images I could find online).  By the end, Jon had brought in a patchwork quilt of correspondents of different colors and backgrounds, and Jon’s replacement, Trevor Noah, brings possibly the most unique point of view ever to grace late night American television: a South African who grew up under Apartheid.


As a new leader, it’s easy to lose sight of the value of different viewpoints.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing everything yourself.  You know exactly what you want, and you can be sure that you will do the job exactly that way.  But this poor leadership prevents the development of skills in the other members of your team.  If you’re going to do everything yourself anyway, why would one of your team members be motivated to do a good job?  And perhaps more importantly, doing everything yourself limits the contributions of the other members of your team, each of whom brings a unique point of view to the task at hand.


3.  Never stop improving.  Jon was a brilliant comedian.  His timing and feel for the crowd were impeccable.  But he wasn’t born with these skills; they developed over time.  If you watch the original monologue from his first episode on the Daily Show, you’ll see that Jon wasn’t the same anchor that he became by the early 2000’s.  He was hesitant, and he didn’t have a feel for just how far he could take his political parody.


When you start seeing patients, you won’t be great at it either.  It takes time to develop a rhythm and rapport with others, to master the parts of your job that are yours alone to do.  But you should see it as a skill, one that you will be working on for the rest of your career.  As Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old.” You should never stop learning either.


4. Genuinely care about the wellbeing of others.  What always struck me when watching Jon Stewart was his hospitality toward his guests, especially the ones with whom he disagreed the most.  He was biting in his questions about their role in the scandal du jour, but he always greeted each guest amicably and treated them like a person.  It is a rare quality indeed to treat your foes this way.


It’s easy to get lost in the daily stresses of your job, to focus first and foremost on yourself, and to forget to show your compassion to your coworkers and patients.  But you will be far more effective as a leader if you are able to periodically put yourself in other people’s shoes, to understand where someone is coming from and to consider their viewpoint when making decisions.  And more important than the results of your leadership, you will get more out of life, the more others-focused you are.


If you become a student of this model of leadership, you may find yourself beloved some day too.  I think Steven Colbert’s final, unscripted take says it all about Jon’s leadership:


“I have been asked and have the privilege to say something to you that’s not in the prompter right now. Here’s the thing, Jon, you said to me and to many other people here years ago never to thank you because we owe you nothing.  It is one of the few times I’ve known you to be dead wrong. We owe you, and not just what you did for our career by employing us to come on this tremendous show that you made. We owe you because we learned from you.  We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect.


You were infuriatingly good at your job, okay, and for all of us who were lucky enough to work with you - and you can edit this out later - all of us who were lucky enough to work with you for sixteen years are better at our job because we got to watch you do yours, and we are better people for having known you.  You are a great artist and a good man.”


Watch Steven Colbert's send off in Jon Stewart's final episode.