How to Lead Real Health Care Change

Last fall I was asked to develop and teach a class on leadership at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. I jumped at the chance! After all, I am passionate about the topic and have personally studied it for years. This would be fun… and easy.

Or so I thought.

To begin with, nearly everything ever written about leadership focuses on C-suite executives who manage vast teams and run multi-million dollar corporations. Translating this information to be applicable for the holistic practitioner was going to take some finesse.

I also realized that I would have to do some myth-busting around what leadership really is. Unfortunately, perceptions of leadership have been overtaken by the cult of celebrity. Many believe that only the rich, the extroverted, the famous, and those who are at the top of their field or industry are the true leaders among us.

But here’s the truth. More than 1000 studies have been conducted to pinpoint the definitive traits of great leaders. Know what they found? Nothing! Zip, zero, nada. In fact, not one of these studies has been able to produce a clear profile of what it takes to be an ideal leader.

You don’t need to have a position of power or an impressive title to lead. Rather, leading involves creating a vision for a better future. It’s about social influence.

A recent experience of mine explains this well.

A few weeks ago, I attended my favorite event of the year, the National Association of Nutrition Professionals annual conference. While waiting for a shuttle to the airport when the conference ended, I struck up a conversation with a young woman, Johanna Setta, who was also outside waiting for a cab. It turns out that she had been awarded one of our coveted student scholarships for the conference. We hadn’t yet met, and I was delighted to grab this opportunity to get to know her better.

When her cab arrived, she invited me to join her (on her dime, no less). Johanna described her work to me as we traveled to the airport; a fulltime job she holds while completing her final practicum at Bauman College. As a Food Access Coordinator for a small community hospital, Johanna helps to bring progressive whole foods-based education to vulnerable populations in Vermont. One aspect of her work involves gleaning, an ancient practice of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields to help feed those in need.

As we talked, I could barely contain myself! Gleaning is something that I’d heard about in Tucson where I live, but wasn’t sure what it was called or how to play a part.

Now armed with this knowledge, I found several ways to get involved with gleaning in my community. I began by talking with neighbors Dr. Lise Alschuler and her partner, Ann, who have a burgeoning orchard in their yard: more grapefruits, figs, oranges, and lemons than any ten families could ever consume during harvest.

Lise was ecstatic to learn about ways to donate her excess fruit to the underserved in our community. And Ann, the president of our homeowner’s association, will now be able to spread the word to the rest of the fruit growers in our neighborhood, too.

That 20-minute conversation with Johanna exemplified the power of social influence. It highlights what I believe our role as leaders should be: to inspire others to be devoted to our ideas, and not to us.

There’s no magic formula or 5 step process to follow to become a great leader, yet three fundamentals for driving social influence repeatedly showed up in my research:

1. Characteristics such as warmth, trust, credibility, authenticity, and integrity inspire followers.

2. Emotional intelligence and deep self-awareness – what I consider to be the primary leadership competencies – pave the way toward gaining crucial leadership skills like powerful communication that incites change.

3. Creativity is essential, too. It ensures that you can adapt, adjust, and modify your career or your practice to meet the demands of the rapid pace of change.

These aren’t skills or traits exclusive to an elite few; they are available to us all. They are qualities that you probably use right now to lead your efforts each day.

And use them we must in our mission to deliver safe and effective health care solutions for all.

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