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CW Ep. 12: Leadership & Culture with James Lee

James Lee discusses the Virtue of Optimistic Leaders in this episode of Contributor Wednesday.

In this episode, I wanted to take a different approach. I’m gonna read to you the words and thoughts are mine, but in contrast to the normal cadence of free flowing quasi improvisational speech that you hear on most podcasts and that I’ll return to, I wanted to be especially thoughtful and precise in my message today, writing, like reading, is becoming a lost art. It is a principle skill set that is fading in the business world, and it’s invisible. Repercussions have also taken root in the industry I love. The business of serving seniors and those who serve them and being the consummate patrolman of my own accountability. I hope to convey my point by demonstrating it. Writing causes deep reflection, and that reflection is the catalyst of choice. Choices are what move us from motivation to action. Leaders who act without deliberate choice do so because they do not deliberate in thought, in what results are we willing to accept if the actions that led to them were born of empty thoughts?

My message today is not simply of writing or reading. The topic of writing is merely a vessel for the real subject that I intend to eliminate. That is the virtue of an optimistic leader and inept leader cannot see the silver lining. A positive leader can always identify the silver lining, the optimistic leader, they know the sun is there before the silver lining is visible to others. To borrow from Winston Churchill, “pessimists, see the difficulty in every opportunity. Optimists see the opportunity in every difficulty.” The dark cloud today is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has especially affected the senior care profession. It does not merely have economic impact to our businesses, it is a shared tragedy in slow motion, which is attack the very center of our promise, our collective motivation, our implicit mission, which has been the basis of the comradery we give to our competitors that is to foster and provide for the enriched lives of seniors.

We have all endured hardships before. Hurricanes have knocked on our doors. Viral outbreaks have swept through our communities before. We have earned our stripes through the constant exercise of getting through tough times. What makes COVID-19 unique is that for the first time, really we are experiencing the same hardship together in the same moment in time, it is not challenging a company, it’s challenging our profession’s identity. It is not asking, are you profitable? It is asking, who are you?

So who are we? Forget positivity for a moment. What is there to be optimistic about? Industry-wide there’s a market decline in inquiries and subsequently in sales, residents are separated from their families, employees are fearful for their own health and making daily negotiations with themselves of health and wages. Investments are slowing. Many companies are preserving cash that they didn’t have to begin with. Our residents are the most susceptible to this virus.

We’re tired. We’re sad. We’re fearful. Things appear bleak. And the silver lining is awfully hard to see right now. So we must look beyond the cloud and the silver lining not yet visible. We must know that the sun is there. It is there. We, the leaders, the stewards of hope must be the silver lining. How do you combat psychological fear. At the moment, it’s not positivity. It’s optimism. It’s not saying everything is okay. It’s believing everything is going to be okay. The message is simple, but the follow through is not easy. The difficulty in executing this optimism campaign is that we must use muscles that have atrophied. Fair warning tough pills ahead.

  • Number one, mirrors our best used when we face them toward us and not to others. Let us acknowledge that we have previously managed by the philosophy of it’s all about the numbers.

The first step in correcting a problem is admitting there was a problem. This philosophy was never written, but it starkly contrasted what was written on our office walls, our employee handbooks and our marketing material. We promise love, but we practiced compliance. The philosophy manifested in policing KPI, key performance indicators. It sounded like have you made your 20 calls today? The philosophies shows in a trained response to regard the resident death first as a move out. I’ve heard people prior to COVID, respond to news of a resident’s death with, well, do we have the pipeline to cover that? The philosophy reared its ugly head again and again, it is not even so much that our people don’t like this philosophy. The bitterness is that the practice philosophy conflicted with our professed philosophy. To change this today, the very first thing we must do is acknowledge what was and to commit to what will be. No company will survive much less thrive by referring back to their policy and procedures manual. That’s like reading the instruction manual while your ship sinks. Policies are important in that they define the boundaries of play. They’re like the gutter of a bowling lane. Having them keeps you from going into the next lane, but they don’t help you to knock down the pins. Deep reflection is needed today. It can begin with reading, read the self help books, read the books about leadership or reread the ones you skimmed for misused talking points, read from authors who don’t think like you, read books by female authors, people of color, and those with something different to say. Read like your company’s life depends on it. And then write. Practice deep reflection in the exercise of writing. I don’t post on LinkedIn for the likes, the likes and the comments are merely data points to help me understand how my writing resonates with others, writing, refines, my thoughts and it calibrates my actions.

  • Number two, don’t praise the front line. Join the front line.

We can give talking points to community leaders on how to speak to their employees, residents, and families, or we can deliver the talking points. By personally speaking to them as the corporate director of sales for Aventine senior living, I actively joined phone calls with families and new residents. I actively make the initial phone call to new inquiries. I don’t just coach engagement. I demonstrate it. Every leader has an avenue to join the front line. Our associates will not be inspired by coaching. They will be inspired by our doing. Today is a golden opportunity to shed the comfort weight of titles and to literally and figuratively walk the walk. I recall vividly the time when as an executive director on a routine morning walk through the community, I came upon a resident in memory care who needed assistance with changing. A caregiver walked in at that moment and said, I can do that, sir.

I replied no problem, I’m more than happy to help. The caregiver smiled and said, great, let me get you a pair of gloves. I replied, Oh no need. I brought my own. The look on the caregiver’s face will never leave my memory. While I certainly didn’t intend for this moment, what I learned was how important it was to the caregiver that I wasn’t just walking around to tell people to do their jobs or even that I was willing to help. The look of gratitude and surprise was that I came equipped to do the job. Leaders who praise the frontline are positive, leaders who joined the frontline are optimistic. Particularly in times of challenge, our teams don’t want us to be behind them. They need us beside them. 

  • Number three, the only thing old in our communities should be our old way of doing things.

Let’s rise to the occasion and develop some new leadership skills or reframe and strengthen our existing ones. We did not wish this difficulty on ourselves, but we should not waste it. The opportunity in this difficulty is not an extra sale to save the quarter. It is not the 1% reduction in overtime. It is not measured in efficiency. The opportunity will be measured in effectiveness. For the moment, the difference between efficiency and effectiveness is the same difference between treating a symptom and curing the root cause. The language of progress today has an emotional intelligence accent. Read about the soft skills, write about them, dialogue with your teams about it. And ultimately you must practice it. If you can identify conflict on a team, but cannot manage it toward a sincerely held belief that it has been resolved, you have mistaken diagnosis for treatment. That’s one small step for management, but one missed leap for inspired leadership.

Optimism is not naive. It is the ultimate growth mindset. It is seeing things both as they are and can be the ones rolling their eyes at the phrase “new normal” may long to return to a time that has passed. But those looking ahead with optimistic eyes are inventing what normal looks like for everyone else. I began this with a quote from Winston Churchill. And so I will end on another. “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Mindfulness and mindlessness take the same basic amount of time, but only one requires courage.


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CW Ep. 12: Leadership & Culture with James Lee