A Plea for Constructive Leadership

My friend and colleague, Nancy Fox, will have her new book published in the spring of 2017, Lessons in Leadership for Person-Centered Elder Care, on leadership in a changing, long-term care profession. With thorough, painstaking and empirical research, she makes a compelling case for and plea to formal leaders to change their ways. For as the proverbial cliché goes, “it starts at the top.”

Leaders have the authority to alter context – to change behavior and affect the routines of their staff. Context can change from an authoritarian, highly structured, and top-down hierarchy to a place of empowerment and self determination, where accountability and shared visions are held by every team member. The goal is to open the vision and allow for consensus, developing a trusting environment and eschewing gossip, innuendos, and back room politics. Sprinkle it all with a heavy dose of humility, awareness and introspection. Sounds good, but hardly an easy task, and Nancy provides a road map for navigating the formidable challenges.

Change does not come from an absence of resistance or, as the Zen philosophy would state, “the obstacle is the path.” In my own career, as the leader of Piñon Management, I faced many a risk and many a daunting crossroads. I was rooted in ideas of Gandhi, that the means and the ends are worthy of each other, and recognized the dialectical nature of the world – where conflict is the midwife of change.

Occasionally, a nursing home under Piñon Management would experience an unsatisfactory outcome on a health department survey. The visceral commentary during the aftermath was one of blaming the surveyors, “they had a bad attitude,” “they were biased,” “they were ignorant of things,” “we should never have admitted that resident,” and many more. A second layer was the shaming of the staff. “This person let us down” or blaming a disgruntled employee who squealed and falsified events.

When planning an approach to a way out of the dark negativity, I had a few simple rules, beginning with the ten minute principle, which allowed the team ten minutes to vent out all their frustration, blaming, shaming or whatever. Expunge all of this in the time allotted. Hopefully, enough catharsis occurred that we could get to the more difficult part.

With ego in check, we all look within and participate in lessons learned. What needs to change? Where do we need help? What is the root cause of the problem? Most of all, I questioned, how did I fail as a leader? What changes do I have to make to provide an atmosphere of support in changing the context? How do I ensure that our shared vision for each resident, pertaining to quality of life and empowerment, is mirrored by the staff?

I see many parallels between my experiences leading Piñon and the recent and rancorous presidential race. After all, it’s like having a bad survey outcome, with all the associated dissonance.

I hope we are in the visceral phase or maybe the primal scream one, with the blaming and shaming, the name calling, the categorizing, the demonizing and the marginalizing tendencies soon to dissipate. Frankly, as a leader with a deep introspective tendency , this is not my favorite stage. Yet, I know its importance.

Let’s see if leadership principles of humility, self-examination, non-violent means can evince both lessons-learned and necessary change. Our children and grandchildren are observing. Will leaders step up? Will the means of change reflect Gandhi and will blaming and shaming lead to positive humility and collective self-examination? We wait and see.

An’ here I sit so patiently

Waiting to find out what price

You have to pay to get out of

Going through all these things twice

– Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”

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