Lead True by Putting People First

Leadership Compass

Put People, Organization and Community First

No matter the industry, leaders face the same types of challenges. It’s a leader’s personal compass that makes all the difference.

Jeff Thompson, MD is chief executive officer emeritus at Gundersen Health System. He’s a pediatrician, an author, and a speaker on building a mission-driven culture. During his tenure, Gundersen Health was recognized for its quality care. Dr. Thompson was awarded the White House Champions of Change award in 2013.

I recently spoke to him about his new book on leadership, Lead True: Live Your Values, Build Your People, Inspire Your Community.



Give Others Courage

You share the dramatic story of you intubating a baby, risking your own career to save a life. There are so many leadership lessons in this story. But I want to ask this: how do you teach others to make these decisions?

No leader can always be everywhere. No rule book can cover every situation. To prepare the staff first you need to believe you are there to build them, not rule them. Holding people accountable is looking backwards…being responsible for their success is looking forward. Give them the tools to make these decisions without you. You need to set a pattern of clarity of the values of the organization, the priority of service above hierarchy, service above self, long-term good over short-term self-protection. When they see you live this, when they see you recognize this in others and support this level of behavior, they will have the courage to do the same.



Courage and discipline. You linked these together. Tell us why and how they relate.

Aristotle is attributed to have said, “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.”  Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it just means fear doesn’t get to make the choice. Having courage is a great start….without courage so little will move forward. But discipline gives courage legs. It focuses and moves the work forward. It keeps you from letting your courage make a stand but accomplish little.

For example…those protesting pipelines and coal burning are very courageous…but if they also have the discipline to lead the conservation effort…they will force the market pressures to limit new pipelines and coal burning. Courage plus discipline will have a much greater effect.

Or you may have bold clear no compromise rules in your organization about how all staff will be treated or how gender and diversity will be respected. Clear, courageous but not effective unless you have the discipline to live by it when one of your high performing stars behaves badly. You need the discipline to follow up on your bold stance. No one’s ego can be more important than the well-being of the staff or organization.



Be a Humble Leader

What does humility look like in leadership?

Humility is the simplest and one of the hardest to get right. Many leaders forget where they came from; many are not close enough to the work or their staff to know what is important.  Humility is leaving the comfort of the C-suite and physically seeing where the work is done. It is asking staff if they have what they need in tools and work environment to do a great job. It is being available and honest in all staff forums in person and online to show that you genuinely want their input and value their contributions. Most importantly…when things get tough…you take the first beating.


What does it mean to innovate to serve values?

The world changes faster and faster. To allow your staff to compete and innovate…give them structure—not more rules but clear values, clear goals, clear understanding of how they will be treated and how they will treat people–and then unleash them.

They will be invigorated; they will use their discretionary energy on new ways to solve problems rather than guessing how and when the rules will be enforced. They will be able to ignore conventional wisdom and find new ways to serve….because they know what the values and goals are.


Build A World Class Team & Culture

If someone is new to a leadership role, where do you recommend that person start to build a world-class team?

They need to start with themselves. What do they value, what are they trying to accomplish, how do they plan to get there….not technically but what will be the environment they will create? Money just pays the bills; a great cause inspires. Next it’s over to Collins….getting the right people. But this is nuanced—not people just like you. That adds little. They need to have different backgrounds, different training, different experiences but with the same values and agree to the same goals. That will add strength and resiliency.



What are some of the signs of a healthy organizational culture? You’ve helped create institutional culture change at large levels. Share some ways you effectuated some of this change.

There are plenty of statistics that are often used to try to monitor a healthy culture. Staff turnover in the first 6-12 months, percent engaged vs coasting, etc.

All those have utility and should be used, but if you as a leader are getting close enough to the work, you can see and feel how you are doing. It is not hard to see whether the staff are putting in an 80% effort to keep their jobs, or putting in the 120% to promote the organization, recruit ever better staff, and innovate to help serve the organization’s purpose.

Your role is to be clear on what that purpose is, clear on the values that will support that purpose, and then demonstrate regularly the courage, discipline and durability to live those values.



Lead True

More leaders are realizing that their responsibility extends beyond shareholders to the community. How do you excite and engage leaders at all levels to think beyond the borders of the organization?

Connecting with the community starts with clarity on your purpose and values. Once that is set, you can find many partners with similar goals and values…even if their cultures are much different. The cultures of the partners don’t have to match exactly, but you have to have similar values and similar goals. If the values don’t match…working together is a mess. If the goals are off…you won’t be heading in the same direction…and the partnership will lose focus and disintegrate.

Shared values and a big tent will have great strength. Most communities have large untapped potential that you and your organizations leaders can help organize…not dominate….but collaborate to serve the whole community.

The benefits and learning will also go both ways. Organizations that have connected to diverse other groups and approach it with a goal to teach and learn know that the interaction and inspiration will add to the fabric and function of your organization.



For more information, see Lead True: Live Your Values, Build Your People, Inspire Your Community.

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