August 24, 2017

Kurt O'Brien leads a conversation at the Leadership Institute.

Leadership Institute instructor Kurt O’Brien, MHROD, teaches scholars skills in adaptive leadership, peer coaching, and crucial conversations.

Leading organizations in rapidly changing times is challenging—and vital. It requires being nimble and responsive, making decisions about the future, managing uncertainty, and guiding others through transitions. That’s one reason Kurt O’Brien, MHROD, feels drawn to teaching leadership and organization development. O’Brien, a Senior Lecturer in the UW Master of Health Administration (MHA) program, also teaches in NWCPHP's Leadership Institute.

“Leadership is really hard work, so anything that gives leaders more skills and tools they can use is helpful,” said O’Brien. He finds the work fascinating. “In any organization, you have to learn to adapt to change. I think I’m just wired that way, so I enjoy it.”

These skills are especially relevant now. “The world we live in today is more complex and uncertain—especially in health care and public health—so leaders need different frameworks to help navigate this environment. The models from 15 or 20 years ago don’t necessarily apply,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien teaches institute scholars about adaptive leadership—leading in changing environments—as well as leadership styles, peer coaching, and skills for crucial conversations. He also designed a new individual leadership plan process, in which scholars set leadership goals, reflect on motivations, identify strengths and areas to develop, and determine steps to accomplish goals.

O’Brien learned about leadership and integrity from his father and in the Coast Guard, in which he spent 12 years as an officer. He remembers, as a young ensign, watching a commanding officer run to help a crew member shouldering a heavy box. It was a visceral lesson: leaders are never too important to help others.

The Coast Guard enhanced his appreciation for adaptability and flexibility. Playing on the Coast Guard motto, “Semper Paratus,” or “always ready,” he taught the Leadership Institute another: “Semper Gumby,” or “always flexible.”

After completing a graduate degree in organization development from the University of San Francisco, an opportunity as a Senior Consultant at UW Medical Center’s Organization Development and Training department brought him to Seattle.

He collaborated with Ed Walker, MD, MHA, who taught in the MHA program and in NWCPHP’s Leadership Institute. Walker alerted O’Brien to an adjunct MHA faculty opportunity, which O’Brien attained. O’Brien was also Director of Organization Development and Training at UW Medicine for seven years. In 2015, he transitioned to permanent faculty in the MHA program, where he teaches group dynamics, team leadership, and organizational behavior.

When Walker retired from the Leadership Institute, he recommended O’Brien to Bud Nicola, then the Institute Director, and O’Brien took over Walker’s role. O’Brien appreciates that this role helps him learn more about public health and its intersections with health care.

O’Brien is impressed with the scholars’ engagement and motivation, and their willingness to think critically, apply what they learn, and face the hard work of leadership.

Asked a skill he teaches at the Institute that’s important for anyone in public health, he replied, “Dialogue skills are becoming increasingly critical, as is the ability to understand the dynamics of what’s going on when groups of people come together and interact.”

Building these skills takes time, and people are busy. O’Brien understands this. On top of his UW roles, O’Brien is an independent consultant. He also recently worked with Walker to develop a leadership workshop for UW School of Public Health leaders, which he and Walker will repeat this fall.

But work-life balance helps leaders avoid burnout, and O’Brien models that equilibrium. Growing up in Colorado, he became enamored of nature through skiing, hiking, camping, and sailing. Now, with two adult children out of college, he and his wife spend time outdoors, recently learning to kayak, mountain bike, and fish. They have plans to travel to Japan to visit their son and perhaps to Scotland or New Zealand. For this summer, one new responsibility curtailed their plans: a puppy named Hudson. O’Brien happily adapted to the change.