Extreme Leadership by Richard Corder
I’d like to share some thoughts and stories that embody leadership for me. I’d like to share some lessons, observations and anecdotes that remind me that life and leadership are synonymous, connected, intertwined and related. I’d like to share with you some of what is my ongoing journey with a notion of leadership that is extreme, that is real and that pushes me to think, act and live differently.
By means of introduction (or re-introduction), perhaps much like you, when I meet someone for the first time, I’m asked what I do…
I know what people mean, I know what they want to hear. They want to know what I do to earn a living. There’s a part of me that wants to make something up… perhaps tell them that I’m an international spy or something…
I usually answer the question straight, though I do cringe a little. Not because of what I do, but because the question feels so very cold as the entrée to a conversation, as the beginning of a relationship, as the opening scene of a love story…
What I feel like saying is something like;
What do I do?
I struggle every day to be good enough. I struggle to be a good enough husband, to be a good enough dad, to be a good enough brother, a good enough friend, and a good enough leader. I work really hard to listen to those around me. To listen to my wife, to my children, to my friends, to my colleagues, to those I serve, and to listen to myself.
When asked what I do, I want to say…
I make mistakes, I apologize, I cry, I love, I fall down, I get up, I lead, I love, I forgive, I care, I love.
That’s what I do.
And I get to do work I love in the service of people who love what I do.
I get to coach and consult hospital leaders and their teams to create and lead cultures that are caregiver and patient driven. It is humbling space to work with leaders that are committed to do being personally accountable for leaving healthcare better than when they found it.
This story is about the notion of real, raw, leadership, and OS!M’s. This is a reminder that we can find leadership lessons all around us, and find a piece of ourselves in almost all of these lessons.
This is the point of the story that if we were together, I’d ask you to close your eyes and picture a scene, but since I need you to read this, I’m going to ask you to use your imagination, Imagine that you’re in a loud amusement park on a hot summer’s day.
You can hear the sounds of the park; you can smell the fried dough, the hot dogs and the kettle corn. You are being led by a small child who is eagerly guiding you toward the ride they call…
“Colossus – the Fire Dragon”
Now look up at the Colossus!
This is the mother of all rollercoaster rides….
Hurtling at speeds that you can hardly comprehend and rattling feet, feet, feet up into the sky…
And then silence, immediately followed by a sudden spiraling corkscrew, taking mere nanoseconds to transport the screaming passengers back down to earth…
Now stay with me in your imagination.
You’re in line, still hoping that the little cherub holding your hand will somehow change their mind and want to ride the tea-cups, or the bumper cars…
The safety of a 20 minute wait in line is rapidly diminishing… you now find yourself slowly climbing aboard the “ride of a lifetime”…
Before you realize it, you have lost all control over the situation, and your intent to be the rational adult in this duo has long gone, you are now seated in a hot-plastic bucket seat with a restrictive bar over your chest…
And then silence…
And, lurch, you’re away. Slowly at first and gradually the incline is increased….
The hand of the innocent child that hood-winked you onto this ride has disappeared and your desperate prayers are not helping…
Click, click, click, click, click
Up, up, up, up, up
And then the silence as you level out and s…l…o…w…l…y… go… over… the… edge…
I can hear you scream!
This, is an OS!M This is an Oh Sh*t Moment!
These are what my mentor and brother Steve Farber calls our OS!Ms
These moments of fear, excitement, exhilaration, panic… as you come over the top. This is life lived. These are the moments when we’ve pushed ourselves to do something different, when we’ve pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Deep down we know we’re going to be OK. We know we’re not going to die but this is way outside of what we’re comfortable with. And quite frankly it’s scary…
Life lived to the fullest, leadership done in its purest, most effective and impactful form is largely about doing the things that we’re afraid of.
Having that difficult conversation, biting our tongues when we want to scream, forgiving when we want to grudge, walking away when we want to fight – these are OS!Ms – these are scary, they require guts, they require fortitude, and they require faith in our own abilities.
These moments, when re-told and shared with others, are what are often referred to as ‘taking your mess and making it your message’; they make us stronger, more capable and more resilient leaders and people.
In my line of work, much of my time is spent with the people who hold senior roles, long, impressive titles, and usually command the really large salaries.
I want to share a secret with you; under the cone of silence if you like… you can’t tell anyone that I told you this. Leadership is a funny word. There are many people that I work with that desperately want to be leaders. But they’re actually posing, and many don’t even know it.
As my friend and coach Steve Farber reminds me, leadership is a lot like really wanting to be a Matador, a bull fighter. Only to find yourself standing in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on you, when you realize that what you really wanted was to wear skin tight pants and hear the crowd roar…
Leadership is not for the light of heart and yet it is oft confused with title, position, and large pay checks…
Leadership is always substantive and it is rarely fashionable.
Leadership is intensely personal and intrinsically scary, and it requires that we live the ideas that we espouse and share – in irrefutable ways – each and every day of our lives, up to and beyond the point of fear.
What I have learned is that we are all leaders in our own lives, each and every day. Each of us is leading and each of us is changing the world.
Leadership is about doing what you do to change the world as YOU define it. It’s yours, you can define it in any way that you want. The world (small w or large W…) might be you, your family, your school, your department, your church, your company, your state, your cause, your party, your country, your world, as you define it, is yours… and you can change it.
We change our worlds by living, by leading out loud, and by taking LEAPs. We:
Lead and live with Love – the L – word. “Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do!” Love is a powerful force that overcomes all. This is not a romantic notion, definition or use of the word. This is the ultimate motivation, the calling and commitment to doing what you do; I see more love in healthcare than almost anywhere else I’ve been blessed to work. Ask a caregiver why they do what they do, and you will hear a heartfelt dedication to the work, those they serve and the difference that they want to make in the world – it’s a love story.
Each of us finds and generates our own special Energy. Living and leading we generate energy; the vigor and liveliness that makes people want to be around each of us, and learning with us. Don’t confuse energy with volume – energy can be peaceful, energy is a life-force.
We make a difference in the world when we do it with our own stamp and brand, when we do it with Audacity. What my friend and colleague Helen Bevan refers to as “Rocking the boat without falling out…” This is the braveness to speak up when we see something unsafe, this is the guts to do the right thing even in the face of feeling silly or stupid.
Put another way – do you! In glorious, fabulous Technicolor!
And we change our worlds when we can show and share the evidence that it makes a difference, however small – when we prove it to ourselves and others – when we do it with Proof!
Love, Energy, Audacity and Proof – spells out LEAP – living and leading an extreme life is about taking LEAPs
I have met and worked with overnight housekeepers that have more love and energy than folks in the most senior parts of an organization. I have spent time with people that occupy the big offices that are afraid to open up, afraid to admit they’re wrong, and afraid to say “I’m sorry”.
Leadership is not about title, or salary, or status. Leadership is a personal calling to follow a different path, to change the world as you’ve defined it…
In the hierarchies that are present in hospitals, we are uber vigilant to creating; leading and nurturing climates that make it safe to speak up in the face of authority. Cultures that reward people with no title or formal authority who have the guts to stop something un-safe from happening are to be celebrated.
One story that we often reflect on when doing this work has nothing to do with healthcare…
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle orbiter Challenger broke up 73 seconds after liftoff, bringing a devastating end to the spacecraft’s 10th mission.
The disaster claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard. It was later determined that two rubber O-rings, which had been designed to separate the sections of the rocket booster, had failed due to cold temperatures.
I don’t know about you, but I can still close my eyes and see it as if it was yesterday. That moment, thirty years ago when we watched President Reagan close his news conference that evening with the words, “… and we waved goodbye… as they slipped the surly bonds of earth, to touch the face of god…”
What you might not know about that story is that the guy that had designed the failed O-rings had a big part in this tale – his was a personal one, his was a leadership one, his was an OS!M.
Without getting too much into the details of the time and the inner workings of NASA in those days; there was huge pressure to stay on schedule and get this shuttle up, maintain an aggressive flight plan, and to keep on track with political, vendor and contractor commitments that had been made by many a ‘leader’.
In the weeks running up to the launch, when the date had been decided, it became apparent to Roger Boisjoly, the engineer responsible for the design and manufacture of the O-rings, that the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather and NASA’s ambitious shuttle launch schedule included winter lift-offs with risky temperatures, even in Florida.
Put another way, the “O-Rings”, the seals, would fail if launch temperatures were too cold.
Every weather forecast available to the ground crew for the morning of January 28th 1986 indicated launch-time temperature as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. For several months prior to launch Roger Boisjoly’s written memo’s predicted:
“The result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life,”
The day before the launch, and on the morning of the launch, he pleaded with NASA and his managers to delay… To no avail.
He watched the launch from a remote location with his daughter and several colleagues. Seventy three seconds after lift-off, he screamed and sobbed uncontrollably.
The O-Ring engineer with no title, no authority and no rank did his very best to speak up, he did his very best to lead.
The smallest voice, the bravest soul, the kindest response can, and often is, the voice of the radical, extreme leader. Let’s not assume that leadership is reserved for those in power. It is ours.
If you think you don’t have a voice, you do.
Working in healthcare to improve the patient and caregiver experience, we are often faced with trying to improve and level the plane of communication – we’re often working on the premise of, “Doctor, come down from your pedestal, patient get up from your knees”.
This notion of a LEAP is a good reminder for those who have become powerful, either consciously or unconsciously. It is a reminder to pay attention to what it means to be a servant, personally accountable leader.
We are often asked to work with the “difficult” or “disruptive” physician or nurse. This is the character that you are most familiar with from watching HOUSE or certain episodes of Code Black or Grays Anatomy. The professionals that we are asked to work with are what we typically label as “unprofessional”
I reject many of these labels. Over the years I have learned from those that wear them, that there are always more sides to the story, more layers to the reality, and systems that have unintentionally supported, nurtured and promoted some of this behavior.
Several years ago, at a hospital that I was working in, I was at the front of a room of busy physicians poised to teach “communication skills”. This notion and curriculum is clearly an affront to one particular attending surgeon who if I had to guess is 20 years my senior. The exchange goes something like this:
“Who the hell do you think you are talking to me about communication skills! How dare you tell me what my patients want to hear! Where do you get off telling me that…”
You get the idea.
I quickly realize that the anger, while being directed at me, is not about me. That said it was very difficult to hear this barrage of sentiment, quite frankly I was scared and upset.
It ended as quickly as it started; needless to say we never got to my phenomenally prepared curriculum…
Two weeks later I was walking through the main lobby of the hospital and someone gently touched my arm. Here was the “surgeon from hell”, the guy from two weeks ago who had torn into me…
With tears in his eyes, he said, “I am so sorry for behaving like that, that’s not who I am and not how I wanted you to meet me. I’m so very sorry”
My fear immediately turned into shock, into pity, into empathy, into friendship. Oh how he was hurting.
He asked if we could talk. He shared with me that life had taken some unplanned turns, that he was working to save his second marriage, that the relationships with his three children were on the rocks, and that he’d made some mistakes, that he felt like an unsafe surgeon, and a bad doctor…
He was embarrassed and sorry for treating me like he had. He said sorry and we held each others hands in a tight, two-handed hand-shake for what felt like ten minutes.
He emailed me last week and told me he has a new job, he’s happy, and the children are coming to visit.
This moment in the lobby must have been an OS!M for him.
This was a wakeup call both for me and for this doctor. We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to judge on first impression, we don’t have to go through life not asking for help, not asking for advice, not admitting when we’re wrong, not saying “I don’t know.”
We can pause, we can breath, we can look up, and we can remember that there are people all around willing to help, guide and support, and that we in-turn are called to do the same for others, regardless of title, position or stature.
This was a wake-up call of real significance – a realization that we are the leaders of our lives, and that we can effect change by taking a LEAP.
My hope is that our wakeup calls are similar to one that the O-Ring Engineer had as he realized the leader that was within him was there regardless of title, or outcome. Or the doctor, whose wake up call to leadership comes by remembering that to be the best him was about reconnecting with what called him to medicine, and was the caring and kind spirit that made him a sweet, gentle, father, husband, and caregiver.
My hope for you is that your wakeup call is a daily reminder that we are all called, regardless of title, role or position, to live as loving, energetic, audacious and servant leaders, each committed to changing our worlds as we’ve defined them.
I would like to close with a poem that embodies this message that we are all leaders in our lives, that we are all better when we lean on each other, and that we are good enough, strong enough, brave enough and here, now, to change the world, as we define it with love, energy, audacity and proof.
The Hopi Tribe is a sovereign nation located in northeastern Arizona.
I leave you with the words attributed to a Hopi Elder.
“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour. And there are things to be considered . . .
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.”
Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said,
“This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”[Richard Corder works with leaders and organizations to make healthcare more human, more patient centered and safer. By focusing on the people that deliver care, Richard helps create a culture that allows leaders to craft, lead and sustain organizational systems that generate improved results for both the patient and the organization.]