When Leadership Happens, People Listen

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cathy-wolfe1By Cathy Wolfe

In 1991, when Magic Johnson was first diagnosed with AIDS, it was still “The Dark Ages” regarding perceptions about the disease. An erroneous but persistent belief lingered that the virus could be spread by coming into contact with the blood of an HIV-positive person in the open air. Players complained and said they didn’t want to be on the court with him.

At one pre-season game the moment came that everyone knew would: Johnson had gotten scraped. They brought the trainer, Gary Vitti, out to patch him up. All eyes, all cameras, were on Vitti. He had gloves in his pocket, but he saw everyone staring at him. He had been telling the players that they could not get HIV from Johnson that way. Vitti knew if he put those gloves on, he would be sending a mixed message to the world, and he wasn’t willing to do that.

In that moment, with that decision, the world heard what Vitti was “saying.”

People are looking for that kind of leadership in all sorts of places these days because they’re not finding it in traditional titles and offices. Ketchum, a public relations and marketing agency, publishes an annual study called “Breaking Through Persistent Barriers to Leadership.” More than 25,000 people across five continents and 22 industries share their thoughts on leaders. The key takeaway from this year’s study: there is dismal confidence in leaders overall. The best way to change that perception is to align your behavior with what people say they want most in their leaders.

Make the tough decisions

In the new Netflix series The Crown, an ailing King George VI, knowing he is too sick to undertake a months-long tour, asks his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, to take his place. She immediately agrees, despite having young children at home. About them, she says, “They are too young to notice.”

Like her decision or not, Elizabeth gives an indication of her commitment to her role and the type of leadership figure she will be, supplanting her own needs with the needs of her country. She demonstrates here the willingness to make tough decisions – even when both alternatives are less than ideal.

Handle crises calmly

In 2014, Charles Sorenson, the president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, faced what you might call a crisis. According to an article in Modern Healthcare, Intermountain discovered through its review processes that it was out of compliance with the federal Stark law governing physician referrals and financial relationships. Sorenson made the decision to proactively self-disclose those issues. As a result, Intermountain paid the federal government a $25.5 million settlement.

According to a colleague interviewed by the magazine: “We could have very easily let that slip and just cleaned it up and not worried about it—but not Charles. He disclosed it and made it right.”

Sorenson’s self-disclosure takes calm, confident leadership to a new level.

Admit mistakes

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, encouraged women to be active advocates for themselves in their careers. It was a popular book, but she also got pushback from single moms who felt she chastised them for not being more active in their careers and overlooked the fact that she was blessed with resources not available to everyone.

Sheryl tried to be sensitive but also stood her ground. She felt women needed to do more. Then she lost her husband tragically. On Mother’s Day, 2016 she publicly came forward to admit that she’d been wrong. Now that she is a single mom herself, she realizes she knew nothing before and it’s way harder than she thought.

People listen to and respect others who admit to and are accountable for their own shortcomings.

Open communication

Transparency can be good for your organization. Take Netflix. Several years ago they uploaded a basic PowerPoint deck explaining how they shaped their culture and motivated performance. They put it online, and it went viral.

That’s pretty transparent. They were willing to share company secrets with anyone willing to make their way through 127 slides. Their success, with multiple Emmy awards and over 29 million users in the US, speaks for itself.

Lead by example

About 20 years ago, musician Tim Westergren had an idea to make it easier for people to find new music and for musicians to be found and heard. He recruited a team to listen to songs, make notes about them, and create an algorithm that would give listeners new music recommendations based on what they already liked. You may have heard of it: Pandora.

When Westergren ran out of his initial funding, he first gave up his own salary, then paid employee salaries on his credit cards, and then he asked his team to keep working even while he couldn’t pay them (yet). He talked to his team about how important the work they were doing was and how it was going to change culture. His team of 50 people stuck with him for two years without knowing when they’d get paid.

If people believe in you and what you’re doing, you can inspire amazing behavior in return.


Today, employees at every level in healthcare are stressed, confused, and bewildered. The result is growing insecurity, anxiety, and outright resistance to change, leading to a demoralized workforce and comprised compliance.

People will notice how you react to all this uncertainty and the frustrating challenges. They might rely on you for cues. If you embody these leadership behaviors, they can a find a reason to be inspired, because they see someone who is willing to make tough decisions, stays calm in a crisis, willingly admits mistakes, communicates openly, and leads by example. They see a leader.

Cathy Wolfe is the senior director, strategic communication and market intelligence at Toshiba America Medical Systems, Inc. She can be reached at cwolfe@tams.com.

One comment

  1. Cathy, I absolutely LOVED this article. What an amazing way of demonstrating the power a true leader brings to their teams. Its truly tough to lead. It takes sacrifice. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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