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CIO Unplugged 8/9/17

August 9, 2017 Ed Marx 12 Comments

The views and opinions expressed are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Brokenness in Leadership

I finished my keynote presentation for the New York HIMSS chapter and surrendered the stage back to my host. With Yankee Stadium as the backdrop, the entire day’s event had been spectacular.

Lit, I spoke about customer service. I had no intention of sharing a Top 10 list of things you could replicate in your organization to create a culture of customer service. Rather I aimed to pierce the hearts and souls of each and every person listening. If I pierced hearts, leaders might be transformed and the Top 10 action items would be created and owned by them.

I shared real stories how hearts were pierced – mine and others. Pierced hearts drove us to create, design, and deliver superior customer service, and in turn, improve clinical and business outcomes. It is one big ecosystem, I suspect, a softened heart that beats to serve and changes culture which improves outcomes. The cycle begins with brokenness.

Leaders approached me at the reception with tears in their eyes. Tears glistening on his cheeks, a battle-tested CEO shared how he never cried. But there he stood. Pierced. Changed.

One by one they stood in line, sharing how their worlds got rocked. The big question was, how could I be vulnerable to my teams, let alone strangers? How could I display raw emotion while recounting core-shaking stories? How could they get in touch with themselves at that level and with transparency?

Those are deep questions and I am not sure I have the answer. Perhaps part of the answer involves brokenness. I realize I am a broken person. I have failed as much as I have succeeded. I have been challenged in life and career. I have struggled with work, I have struggled with sport, I have struggled with kids, I have struggled with marriage. I have hit rock bottom. Hard.

I know I am weak. I also know on my own there is no way up. I am a grateful survivor. I realize the gap between my brokenness and my recovery is filled by grace. If karma is real, I am in big trouble. Really big trouble. Grace is my new BFF.

Some are too prideful to admit weakness and resist brokenness. We compete to be better than the pack and hide behind façades. We are pretenders. In pain. We don’t let others see or touch it. In fact, we bully others who show weakness. We resort to over-medication, legally or otherwise.

Ideally, we realize the need to get real and accept our brokenness. Perhaps acceptance is the start. We embrace brokenness as something bigger than ourselves. Acceptance creates capacity for gratefulness. I sometimes tear up because I am so thankful to others. I recognize that my accomplishments are not about me, but because of others.

I also learned compassion and empathy growing up. The youngest of seven, I spent significant time with my mother alone and bonded tightly. Mom suffered her entire life with chronic illness as I watched her deal with pain with a brave face. She was a servant who loved her kids and husband. Days before she traded her earthly rags for robes of righteousness, we talked about it. Why did God allow her to suffer so long? Why was such a great woman taken so early and cruelly?

We never realized the answer, but at the end I whispered in her ear that her quiver full of successful kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids was a testimony of her significant legacy. In her suffering we observed grace and learned empathy. My heart pierced multiple times in her journey.

As I gained experience serving in hospitals, I began to see patients in the normal course of work. Here I was, healthy, while around me was sickness and death. As an anesthesia tech, I assisted in many procedures, including the harvesting of organs. I watched parents surrender their child’s body to medicine in hopes a tragic suicide would bring life to others they could never know.

I passed gurneys that seemed empty except for the body hidden underneath drapes. I experienced poignant reminders that life is fragile. I understood my service was to make people well while also ensuring the dignity of death. Even as I write this, my mind is full of memories. How can I not cry?

Leadership. Through life and circumstances, we become hardened. Work can be tough and family tougher. Life happens. Even the most supple arteries get clogged. Yet to be effective, our hearts must remain pliable and soft.

For me, volunteering weekly in hospitals keeps my heart pure and the blood flowing. Seeing sick children in particular touches me. I regularly shadow clinicians and hide tears. Patients. I have to see patients. They pierce my heart. They re-orient my focus.

As leaders, we must remain vulnerable and transparent. We must demonstrate that it is OK to cry. Emotions are strength, not weakness.

Demonstrate brokenness. Become a vehicle of mercy and grace to others. Once you embrace your brokenness, you are able to lead others through theirs.


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Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hi Ed,
    Very inspiring post. Over the years you have given a lot of good and great advice to your audiences. You have not crusaded overtly about your christianity, but it remains as the back story … every time, I think. I don’t remember all of your columns, but unless there was an early one that I spaced on, I think that it true.

    So, my question is, what do you say to an atheist? When you promote someone you believe they will benefit and your organization will benefit, right? You believe that because of what you have seen with your own eyes or what people you believe in put this person up for promotion because they believe in them because your colleagues have seen the candidate perform with their own eyes. So belief is a decision based on experience.

    Belief in god is a decision also, but it is unlike other decisions because there is no proof in the actual existence of a divine being.

    So, if I told you I was an atheist would you try to convince me to believe in your god?

    Further, would you help an atheist in your organization advance, improve their skills and help your organization?

    If so, how would you base your advice? I would love to read one of your columns giving career advice to an atheist!

    Still, I mostly enjoy your columns and I am very impressed with your success, whatever the cause.

    All the best,

    Aging Atheist

    • I completely respect everyone as a person regardless of belief system. Faith is personal and I have learned over the years never to judge or make decisions based on a person’s faith or non-faith orientation. It is about ethical execution and results. Let me answer your questions directly…

      So, if I told you I was an atheist would you try to convince me to believe in your god? No. If you asked me what my beliefs were and why I believed, I would tell you. Some say it was St. Francis who said something like “share your faith, use words if you must”. I am all about execution and results. I am not concerned with your faith, the name of your school, your lifestyle choices, your clothing style, whatever. I love and enjoy diversity. I love people.

      Further, would you help an atheist in your organization advance, improve their skills and help your organization? I would treat them with the same respect as everyone else. My leadership teams have been as multi-cultural and diverse as you can imagine. I always invite my team members to express themselves in the way they are true to themselves.

      If so, how would you base your advice? I would love to read one of your columns giving career advice to an atheist! I would love to speak with you and learn and invite you to contact me. I think (I also would have to go back in time and check) all of my career oriented pieces are applicable to all belief systems. For instance brokenness, that is pretty universal. Working harder than your competition is universal. Having vision and a plan is universal. Treating people well and servant leadership is universal. We then internalize and perhaps actualize the universal principles a little differently based on our belief systems but I expect they apply equally to an Athiest, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Christian, etc. In other words, my advice would be the same.

  2. Ed good thoughts, thanks.

    In 2000 I was both a CIO and an Administrator at Valley Health System/ University of Washington. All the VP’s carried the title Administrator in addition to their role, CFO,COO, CIO, etc. We were all assigned patient rounding as part of our job and took weekend call for the entire system – I think is somewhat you are doing and mention in your article.

    I agree, this is very helpful to improving and transforming. I would like to see this as a more of a trend in healthcare organizations.



  3. I’m never quite sure if this is a real person writing or some real-life person trying to project a version of Elmer Gantry. The concept of “I’m a broken person” and “I can only be redeemed via Grace” is another way of saying “I consistently make bad choices, bad decisions and refuse to accept responsibility for them”.

    Dude, get up in the morning, look in the mirror and make a choice about who and what you are going to be that day. And, when in the end you refuse to be all you can be, when you refuse to honor whatever gifts you have been given, when you refuse to honor your commitments to those around you please, please, please do not presume to stand in front of others so that you can ‘pierce their hearts’ so that they will go good works. Seriously?

    The work that I do in healthcare IT touches a ga-zillion providers, patients, family members and who knows who else. The fact that in this industry, everything we do has that scope and impact is EXACTLY why we get up in the morning, EXACTLY why we apply our best efforts in every moment of every day.

    How dare you presume that your own twisted, tortured, and weak approach to life somehow means that your role is to attempt to somehow transfer that perspective on others!

    I’ve read these columns (when I could stand it) off and on for some years, and, assuming you are a real person, I marvel that you somehow keep getting hired into positions where you are in a role of leadership. If what you have written here is true, is based in the real world,and accurately reflects a real event in your life, then let me be the first (well, I’m guessing not the first) to suggest that you take a little time away in reflection to reconsider the root of what you are suggesting.

    We don’t need to shadow a Dr to know what the impact of what we are doing is. We don’t need to somehow insert ourselves into a patient’s pain and encounter to be aware of the nature of the work we do, and we certainly don’t need to have our ‘hearts pierced’ in order to get our creative juices flowing for whatever problem or need is in front of us.

    If ‘seeing patients’ is so critical to your self-worth then for heavens sake go back to school, become a provider and serve them. If I were the patient of a child where you came to ‘shadow’ a provider I would bull-rush you out the room so fast it would make your ‘healthy’ head spin.

    And, one last comment (assuming this is even allowed on the site) – if you want to be set free, if you want fulfillment, if you want to truly impact others then embrace the perfect creation that you are, embrace the awesome gifts that you have provided with and CHOOSE to own making decisions that honor all of those things to the fullest. Stop operating from the perspective that saying “I’m broken” is a hall pass for “I’m not capable of holding myself accountable”.


    • CJ. I hear your points and appreciate your views. There is actually some underlying commonality. My experiences leading in the military, healthcare, and sport has shaped me and given me a different perspective than yours. It is not a better perspective but it is my experience. It is my story. I have shared these experiences as I have learned them, globally over the years and it resonates with many. Not everyone may have the self-mastery or discipline you have actualized so sharing some of the concepts may help people on their own journey. The sheer amount of overwhelmingly positive feedback I receive from people around the world tell me that these thoughts are helpful for some in their own personal and professional journey. The feedback comes from people just starting in their careers to CEOs of some of the largest companies in and outside of healthcare. It is wonderful that we have this forum where we can share our experiences with others both good and bad. I don’t agree with everything I hear or read but I love to be pushed and challenged. I know my perspectives are not for everyone and I am perfectly okay with that. Feel free to contact me directly as I am very open to your candid observations.

      • Ed, Wow, a direct response – thanks for that and it’s a sincere comment. I was raised as the son of a career Navy enlisted Yeoman in a Christian household. You take my parents faith and the US Navy traditions and you are going to raise children who (1) understand that every day, every action, every decision is a choice that you must own and be accountable to and (2) that we are all endowed with unique gifts and skills that we have a sacred responsibility to be true to. Regarding the ‘discipline’ or ‘mastery’ that you refer to – it’s simple – it’s a choice – one moment, one action at a time.

        For me, that’s all the motivation I’ve required throughout my career to strive to be the best I can be and to find a path to positions where my reach and impact is the greatest impact possible. CIO is a pretty broad reach, so we may actually share some similar views/motivations there.

        I’ll also acknowledge the brass that it takes to expose your personal challenges in a semi-public way – I’d just argue – imagine the impact if you shared your journey from viewing life as being a flawed instrument to being a gifted one with the folks who read your stuff. It’d be like emeril lagasse only doing shows where he cooks healthy stuff and shows his audience how to lower their weight and improve their health! Imagine.

        And, on a slightly different note (and perhaps more serious) – I’ve been pondering this for a bit – how do you square suggesting that ’rounding’ with providers in patient encounters to keep your juices flowing and your motivation up with HIPAA requirements? It’s like sites that test random build in a copy of their production environment because it’s ‘easier’ to find relevant ‘live’ patients than to create test patients that meet the needed scenario. I’ve never seen how that is appropriate and as a prospective patient I would not be interested in you being involved in my healthcare/encounter for any reason if you aren’t part of my care team. Sorry, but it feels a little like taking without asking.

        And, I’ll close with this – it doesn’t matter if it’s an admin role, an IT role, a nursing role, a physician/provider role, or whatever – if you choose to work in healthcare in the USA today and you are not crystal clear why you are here then you need to get out of the industry and go elsewhere. EVERY SINGLE participant contributes to patient care (even janitors and billing clerks and so on) and if you don’t view participation as something of a ‘calling’ then going somewhere to make spacely sprokets is probably a better career path.

      • Hey TimeTraveler – thanks for the great link to the TED talk. It really does speak to Ed’s piece and to CodeJockey’s critique.
        So, CodeJockey – you were a little severe initially, but the reply-reply is more even-handed. I am not sure I understand all your points, but it sounds like “just bring the good stuff”. Not sure. This is where the the TED talk by Brene Brown may apply. Something about “whole heartedness” – bringing your whole, flawed self, to work everyday and try to better yourself while helping others. (It sounds like your method accomplishes the same thing … so maybe not so far apart)

        Concerning your uneasiness about having non-clinical types in the room while you are a patient. My understanding is that this is cleared with each patient and certain patients are excluded by the head of the team without explanation necessary. I know when I had admin types accompany me as a physician, I would not invite them in with certain patients. The same goes for medical students. I also know when I rounded as a CMIO or consultant, I made it clear to the team leader that they should not have qualms about excluding me on a given patient. There is precedent for the attitude that “everyone is a care-giver” at a certain nationally ranked hospital system in Cleveland.

        I don’t know Ed personally, but I have heard him speak and I know people who know him and give him full marxs. … #EndingwithWordPlay

        • Interesting comments. Not sure where the ‘arrogance’ comes in (but then that would be by definition – right?). AA – you captured my comments correctly, I think.

          I’ve read the transcript for the TED talk twice – and as a parent I wonder at the outcome of telling a child all of their formative years that they are “imperfect”.

          For me, I choose to view life along the lines of “I’ve been granted a suite of gifts and skills and I have a responsibility to develop those gifts and skills to the utmost and I’ve chosen healthcare as a career because the reach of my efforts is exceptionally wide and far – particularly when compared to other industries”. And I also choose to own responsibility for every choice (good and bad) that I make.

          My initial reaction to Ed was more to the tone of him presuming to ‘pierce the heart’ of his listeners – the idea that they needed the benefit of that action was somewhat off-putting to me.

          As I said earlier – the fact that Ed responded impressed me somewhat (after all – he’s the only one in the conversation fully identified). Doesn’t mean I agree with him, but it does take some brass to lay your heart out in public.

          My point on the patient contact is really about the motivation for the intrusion – if it’s a legit effort to improve the care provided (in my case that would be EHR related) then that’s one thing – if the motivation is purely to serve some selfish need to refresh the reason that we do this work then that strikes me as exceptionally inappropriate.

          Thanks for taking the time to post a thoughtful comment.

  4. Ed,
    I have heard wonderful things from people who have seen your work ethic and devotion first hand. It is nice to see and read about your humility and humbleness. Some times it helps to see different individual perspectives to look at your own!

    Good luck with the future endeavor, I have zero doubts you will be a great success there. I’m hoping and looking forward to us crossing paths in the near future!


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