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CIO Unplugged 7/26/10

July 26, 2010 Ed Marx 6 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of Texas Health Resources or its subsidiaries.

The Authentic Leader (Death to the Cliché)

Summer of ‘86. The gas chamber awaited me.

This time, I made sure my protective mask was on correctly. Four years prior, at basic training as a seventeen-year-old, I had panicked and failed the test. Today, during the final days of training before being commissioned as an officer, I entered the tear gas chamber and approached the awaiting officer. Removing the mask, I stood at attention, mostly. Dry heaves bent my body in half.

The commander yelled, “Cadet Marx, do you have what it takes to lead your troops in difficult situations?”

“Yes, sir,” I gasped. Do. Not. Panic.

“Do you really have what it takes? They need courageous leaders, willing to lead by example.”

“Yes, sir!” The stinging gas closed my eyes to slits. Mucous cascaded over my lips and chin.

As if he knew my struggle, he kept me longer. “Cadet, I want you to sing the national anthem.”

Crap. I gave it my best shot. I’m certain I missed a couple of lines. But as I ran out the exit and filled my greedy lungs with fresh air, I emerged a leader. I now had an authentic story.

I’ve tried to never ask a subordinate to do something I would not do, or haven’t done. I’ve scrubbed toilets and worked factories with the best. Those leaders who pontificate on theories they don’t practice get zero respect from me.

If you say, “Go to where the puck is going,” do you know the precise nuance of that statement? Have you played hockey or just watched it?

“Pace yourself. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” How many can relate to the effort it takes to sprint or run 26.2 miles? Probably few.

Although I hate clichés, I’m guilty of using them. I do my best to speak from direct experience. The difference between telling your own story and using a cliché comes down to credibility of message and messenger.

Where I work, our strategic plan is centered on climbing a mountain, to include base camps and a summit. At first, I thought I understood the immensity of what it meant to conquer a mountain, though I struggled to articulate the concept. I’d never done it. Sure, I walked a trail to the top of Pikes Peak in my youth. But climb a serious mountain?

I asked my fellow leaders if any of them had executed a technical climb. None had. So a few of us got together and planned a climb.

During our nine months of preparation, we lost 60% of our team. We invested, we studied, we sacrificed, we trained. Boy, did we train.


On July 17, 2010, five tired but exhilarated officers summited Long’s Peak. There, we unfurled our organization’s flag, a moment we’ll cherish for years.  

“Climb a mountain” took on an entire new meaning. We realized the sweat it takes to reach base camp. We faced the risks involved and the saw value of the teamwork required. When we speak with our respective employees, we can genuinely convey the energy it takes to reach a summit — genuineness based on experience.

By definition, leaders are in front guiding by example. Leaders explore. Just like in mountain climbing, leadership is risky, which is why so many stop actively showing the way. Sadly, some become active antagonists. I’ll save that for a future post.

Practicing visionaries. I believe a CIO cannot rely on how he or she operated 20 years ago or even one year ago. Don’t just talk about social media, live it. If you personally don’t tweet, yam, yelp, blog, etc, then don’t bother preaching about social media. You’re only lowering your credibility.

Patient care is shifting to the home setting, which means the virtual patient has arrived. Are you virtual, or are you still tethered to a landline in an office?

Do you discuss Mobile Health, HIE, Connected Health or Cloud, yet not actually deliver? I’ve encountered CIOs who talk HIE at length and could exchange information tomorrow, but they refuse to take action.

Your presidents face P&L pressures. Have you run a P&L center to make yourself aware of their challenges?

The healthcare industry has adopted electronic health records and has transitioned to a paperless environment. Are you still reliant on paper?

I wonder how many leaders grasp the double standard they communicate to their people. We talk about patient accountability, but is our physical fitness and lifestyle up to par with our vocation?

Finally, list the modifications you’ve made to your leadership style in the last two years. How have you adjusted to the emergence of multiple generations in the workplace? When you pass people in the hall, do they whisper, “He’s old school”?

Leading via clichés might make communication easier, but our people deserve more. The next time you hear grandpa’s hackneyed truism come out of your mouth, take it captive. It’s time to develop your own experienced-based story that will increase your credibility. Allow a cliché to catapult you to try new things and live your own genuine story.

Ever thought about climbing a mountain? Pick the peak you need to summit, and elevate your authenticity.

Ed Marx is senior vice president and CIO at Texas Health Resources in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook, and you can follow him via Twitter – User Name “marxists.”

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Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. My System
    paraphrased from, The Creed of a United States Marine, by Maj Gen WH Rupertus

    This is my system.
    There are many like it, but this one is MINE.
    My system is my best friend. It is my life.
    I must master it as I must master my life.
    My system without me is useless. Without my system, I am useless.
    I must operate my system true.
    I must ensure accurate data.
    I must accurately process data to diminish suffering. I will…
    My system and myself know that what counts is not our press releases,
    the noise of our announcements, nor the smoke we make.
    We know it is accuracy that counts. We will be accurate…
    My system is human, even as I, because it is life.
    Thus, I will learn it as a brother.
    I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories,
    its sights, and its behavior.
    I will ever guard it against the ravages of incompetence and damage.
    I will keep my system clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready.
    We will become part of each other. We will…
    Before God I swear this creed.
    My system and myself are the defenders of healthcare.
    We are the masters of illness.
    We are the saviors of life.
    So be it, until there is no illness, but HEALTH.

  2. How powerful and inspiring. How fortunate is one to work on a team where such people “walk the walk.” Through their own example, they show us the very real power of leading by example. Great Post.

  3. Terrific post – how sad is it that most leaders don’t really lead. This is inspiring – thanks for reminding that we need to embody leadership, not just pontificate about it.

  4. Very good post Mr Marx. Having both played hockey and summitted Long’s Peak (visible from my back porch) I concur with your analysis of “credibility of message and messenger”. I’ve tried to live my life of improving myself by improving the lives of those those around me; it appears you practice a similar style whether you know it or not. Keep up the good work.

  5. I agree. As a nursing instructor, it is my desire to give a realistic picture of healthcare to my students, to train them for not only a noble profession, but a demanding one as well. It is that voice that the students hear and remember, the voice that says I know what it takes to climb this mountain, and I’ll show you the way.



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