Open and Honest Leadership: Communication

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By Darian Sutton, CRA, RT(R)

In 2003, I was exiting the Army and entering the civilian world. I had several years of radiography experience and, due to the military structure, a fair amount of leadership training as well. I decided to apply for a supervisor position at a hospital not too far from where I grew up. My interview went well, the radiology director liked my military experience, and I was offered the job! I showed up for my first day wide-eyed, excited, and frankly… pretty scared.

My first experiences in leadership were a roller coaster. There were invigorating, validating times when I made changes that positively impacted patient care. There were also expected challenges and failures as I learned the basics of actually leading people. Over time, I began to find the experience frequently disheartening. I began to feel that a pervasive, oppositional stance existed between front line staff and management. As all of us know, there are many things that, as managers, we can’t tell our staff. Sometimes it is to protect the privacy of their coworkers, and other times it is for strategic reasons. It led me to feel that, as a manager, I was supposed to earn the trust of my employees – but not trust them! I can’t imagine I’m the only person who has had this struggle.

It turned around for me shortly after our current CEO took the helm. I remember the day clearly. There was a sensitive issue involving what our risk manager called a “Potentially Compensable Event (PCE).” I was ready to hear how we were going to tell folks not to talk about it while the lawyers gave us advice, and learn my “script” that would allow me to answer questions without really answering them. We all sat down in our conference room, and the CEO said (paraphrased) “It’s important that first: we do the right thing! We need to be transparent and ensure we are living up to the trust that has been placed in us.”

I was floored! We were then told what we could say to our staff, were coached on communication strategies so we would not be misunderstood (didn’t want it to sound worse than it actually was), and of course what was protected information (so we are still upholding our duty to our patients). I went back to my staff and it went… well! For the first time! Instead of glazed eyes and quirked frowns, they were bright eyed and visibly engaged. They all appreciated knowing what did (and didn’t) happen, and what they could say when they were asked by community members. It proved to be a trust building event!

I felt good about my job, knowing that I could be a good manager and a moral human being – at the same time! I learned that, as a leader, one of my duties was to demonstrate what to do when you make a mistake; how to be open, honest, and take accountability.

Open and honest leadership: it can be done! This moment changed my outlook on my job completely.

Now, I do my best to be the kind of person I want to be and be a leader. I try to be open and honest about things both good and bad, and if I can’t say something, I let my staff know why: it’s to protect the rights of other people who have placed trust in me. Sometimes it’s ok to postpone a communication if it needs to be carefully crafted to avoid miscommunication, misrepresentation, or unnecessary anxiety, but it is important not to be untruthful, evasive, or defensive.

I have always been drawn to leadership. Before that meeting, I had an internal struggle between that drive and my morals and often wondered if I was becoming a worse human being because of my job. Now I know I can be both! It is empowering, invigorating, and most importantly, has restored my sense of purpose.

Keep an eye out for my next article in the “Open and Honest Leadership” series, coming soon!


Darian Sutton, CRA, RT(R) is the ancillary services director and HIPAA security officer at Roundup Memorial Healthcare in Roundup, MT. He can be reached at dsutton@rmhmt.org.

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