Chief Example Officer

Each year it becomes more imperative that health care leaders heed the old cliché and set an example for the rest of the organization.

By Ian Morrison

Lead by example. It’s cliché but true. Like most of management theory it’s stuff your mother told you in grade school. But increasingly, the CEO must be the Chief Example Officer. Why? Because every year, three powerful factors make the CEO’s job more difficult:

Skeptical followers. The typical employee of today and tomorrow is not a passive, “Tell me what to do, Boss” type. Employees are educated, sophisticated, and have a thirst for meaning at work. They want to be motivated, inspired, and moved to action, but they are deeply skeptical. They want an explanation for everything, and they need to be told why things are changing-not just how. They will perform if they believe. But what makes them believers? More and more, employees pay attention to the leader’s behavior. Your mom was wrong when she said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In the best organizations, leaders inspire followers by their actions and behavior much more than by their speeches. After all, we grew a little weary of Bill Clinton’s lip biting even if we loved him.

Short tenures. CEOs are in a high-risk role. They don’t last long. Whether in the corporate world, the health care industry, or public agencies, the heads of organizations are under enormous pressure to perform. They are paid a good deal of money to succeed, and they’re canned when they don’t. The recession, the demise of, and the relentless pressure from Wall Street to deliver the numbers has made the corporate CEO’s role more hazardous than at any time in the last 20 years. Health care leaders, too, have experienced the same performance pressures. To make a difference as a leader fast, you cannot rely on high-falutin’ vision and mission statements or elaborate strategic planning processes. You need to model the behaviors you want the organization to have. Leaders set the tone, and the tone can be changed. While corporate culture changes at the speed of glacial erosion, leaders can make changes quickly by setting clear directions and demonstrating the behavior that will get the organization there.

Viral leadership. In a hyper-connected world, leaders can be infectious. Their behavior can be amplified by the power of connections. Bill Gates does it through e-mail, others through video-conferencing , others still by wandering around. Regardless of the medium, the message is that the leader’s example can be seen, heard, read, and felt by many. Tools and technology can amplify the presence of the CEO in the life of the organization and extend the range of the Chief Example Officer.

Leading by example can be exhausting if it’s all an act. To make it work you have to be yourself. The values and behaviors and positions have to connect (it’s what the scholars call authenticity). If you are going to lead by example, you’d better be comfortable with who you are and be confident that you are the right person for the job.

Ian Morrison is an author, consultant and futurist based in Menlo Park, California. This column was published in the April/May 2002 Health Forum Journal