Leadership and Organizational Health: Walking the Talk - What's a Leader to Do?

Jay Seifert
Apr 1, 2013 06:40 PM
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Jay Seifert, Guest ColumnistJay Seifert is the co-founder of LoneStart Wellness. He is a pioneer in applying established principles of social neuroscience and behavioral economics to individual and organizational “wellness.” His strategy is specifically designed to improve the health and well-being of those individuals most at risk for preventable chronic illness but least likely to participate in traditional “diet and exercise” programs. He is a monthly wellness guest columnist and you can see his columns in the first NCHN e-News of the month or right here on the blog.

Walking the Talk
What’s A Leader to do?

Today’s leaders are aware of the impact the declining health status of their members is having on their organizations.  Most leaders understand that a well-conceived initiative to improve the health of their members will deliver multiple organizational benefits that go far beyond cost savings.  Yet, for many organizations, implementing such an initiative remains a “back burner” issue.

The reasons most often given for not addressing the health status of an organization include:

  • Cost:  Is it an expense or an investment that will deliver a measurable R.O.I.? 
  • Complexity:  Will its implementation be a burden for an already overloaded staff?
  • Effectiveness:  Will it work? 

Each of these perceived barriers can be overcome with a well-crafted initiative that is positive, realistic, personally-relevant and forgiving.  There is expanding and compelling evidence that by adhering to established principals of learning theory, team-building and intrinsic motivation, an organization can quickly begin to create a culture where healthier behaviors are learned, adopted, shared and sustained.  Problem solved, right?

Not quite.  The best initiative in the world won’t succeed without authentic, visible and engaged leadership—something which is often more easily said than done. 

Leaders understand that in order to be effective role models, they must be willing to “walk the talk” of any initiative they propose.  As the leadership author, John Maxwell says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”  When “the way” involves the leader’s personal health, the knowing is easy (if not especially pleasant).  It’s the going and showing that can be uncomfortable to the point of paralysis for leaders who have not been able to successfully take charge of their own personal health and wellness.

We’ve seen several leaders struggle with this very real dilemma over the years.  One successful hospital CEO confided in me that while he knew he had to contain his employee health costs, and he knew that other hospitals had successfully done so, the thought of “stepping out front on this issue with my people just scares the hell out of me.”  Doing nothing wasn’t an option so he needed to create a strategy that would enable him to overcome his own psychological barriers to participation and success. 

Here’s what we’ve found to be the necessary ingredients to such a successful strategy:

  • Clearly define everyone’s roles in the initiative.  The leader’s role is to have the vision, create the opportunity and actively participate in its implementation. 
  • Create realistic expectations for all participants, including the leader.  There should be as many sets of expectations as there are participants and they must all be positive, realistic and personally relevant.
  • Both provide and ask for meaningful support.  Some of our most successful initiatives have been lead by individuals who acknowledged that they had always struggled with their lifestyle choices and were willing to ask for the support of their organization.
  • Reframe your conversation about health and well-being by avoiding the negatives and focusing on the positives.  When you turn perceived burdens into opportunities, a “Me Problem” becomes a “We Opportunity” and a new, empowering culture of well-being begins to take hold.
  • Be careful and consistent in your messaging.  People must believe this is being done “for them,” not “to them.”  The failure to understand the importance of autonomy is the fatal flaw in most programs being promoted today.
  • While vision and leadership happen at the top of the organization, successful and sustainable implementation will depend upon how quickly the initiative is driven from the bottom-up.  Creating meaningful buy-in at the beginning of the initiative goes a long way toward assuring long-term ownership.

You can “go the way” and “show the way” to success just by acknowledging the personal challenge involved, creating clear expectations, and making even the most modest improvements in your daily behaviors.  By doing so, you demonstrate the three essentials of authentic leadership: humility, clarity and courage.

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