Since stepping back from my CEO role, I have had time to reflect upon the toll that a position like that can take on any individual regardless of the thickness of their epidermis. I have come to realize that anyone who is completely in charge of an organization faces many of the same challenges.
As a young man, I had serious delusions about what it would be like to be in the role of President. It was kind of a Superman fantasy: Yes, I would be kind, understanding, and fair. It would be my further commitment to be honest, forthright, and ethical in every way. My obligation would be to the people and the patients at all levels. My motto would be “Truth, justice, and the American way.”
Then the big day came, and my tenure began. It took about an hour to realize that it was now my personal responsibility to do everything necessary to generate all of the money needed to make payroll for the employees. In an area with a disappearing population base, that was an extremely challenging task, and as the Sisters of Mercy used to say, “No money; no mission.”
During the money quest, the issues of loyalty and fairness were always rearing their ugly heads. Could you, in this very self-centered culture, ever really expect people to be loyal no matter what your commitment had been to them? I would minimally try to play the role of a benevolent, servant-leader.
I was the guy who would reach out to people who needed a break and then provide them with that break; sometimes against the conventional wisdom. What did I expect in return from them? Simple loyalty. Time and time again, however, those same people who might never have had the opportunity that they were given would turn on me. It became almost predictable.
It took them a long time to believe that they were capable of doing the job that I had personally selected them to take, but usually as soon as they reached their comfort zone they would begin to turn away. Maybe it is just human nature, but even Mighty Mouse would have been disillusioned by this recurring situation.
The other CEO reality is that fairness is situational and so subject to interpretation that it becomes impossible to please or satisfy everyone. The nature of our new collective employee psyches seems to be one of “If it’s not done directly for me, then it’s not fair.” The list of individuals who were brought to the leadership stage over my 22 years in healthcare was voluminous. Dozens of people were given consideration for their education, salaries, promotions, and advancements, yet if one other person was recognized in a similar way, the hue and cry was often, “It’s not fair.”
So, looking back over two decades of running hospitals, foundations, a research institute, and several other spin-off companies, an appropriate summary for any future leader is to “go with your gut.” With that in mind:
You are not now and will never be a superhero.
You are a human being with human frailties.
You cannot right the world or repair dysfunctional childhoods, marriages, or lifestyles through your benevolence.
You can do what you believe will result in the most good for the most people.
You can respect the fact that your efforts could help to continue payrolls for hundreds or even thousands of families.
You can embrace the fact that the vast majority of your mistakes will not be fatal to anyone, but you also need to learn to cut your losses and deal with the disloyal.
One of my mentors used to pull me aside periodically and say, “Nick, you’re doing a great job, but you need to lighten up. We only pass through here once. So, try to enjoy yourself, my friend.”
Now that was good advice.