Integrity and Courageous Authenticity

While different leadership competency models describe them differently, I find that the capabilities most closely aligned to sustainable performance are integrity and courageous authenticity. Taken together they are the best predictors of a leader’s ability to consistently get the best from an organization. They are also great examples of how not all “soft skills” are about charisma or even popularity. Each of these two capacities requires a level of focus, clarity and courage that will often create friction — especially in cultures that have been sleepy for long periods.

Marcy Doderer, CEO at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, is a clear and compelling example of a leader who exhibits the power of both integrity and courageous authenticity. Her nine months in the job have already begun to have visible impact, and for those paying attention, it is not hard to see the impact of her focus on culture, consistency and accountability.

Integrity has to do with consistency between actions and words. An executive most clearly exhibits integrity when she gives power to values or cultural norms she aspires to — especially when it is hard and the stakes are high. Ms. Doderer is very clear about the culture — and the fundamental charter for the organization.

During a recent visit to Children’s Hospital, I stopped five random employees, all in different roles and apparently different levels of responsibility, and asked them all the same question: “What is the thing you consider most when making a decision about anything here?” All five answered with no hesitation, irony or suspicion, “What is in the best interest of the child?” A little conversation with both Ms. Doderer and some of those staff also showed her decisions are not always easy or popular. But it is clear that the organization knows what she stands for and that her decisions are consistent with the values she espouses.

Closely related to integrity is the concept of courageous authenticity. I think of this as the ability and willingness to bring up the difficult or even taboo topics to be dealt with openly and directly, and to do so without lobbing the proverbial hand grenade on the table.

Ms. Doderer is pointedly clear, especially about changes she is championing and views as critical. A great example is her approach to safety. Rather than couch the conversation about safety in the terms most businesses use — “days without a reportable incident” or “missed days of work” — the posters and feeds throughout the campus report, down to the latest hour, how long it has been since the hospital has “harmed a child.”

In an organization that cannot talk about the difficult topics, language like that might be incendiary. But in a culture where everyone feels accountable to focus on what is best for the child, it is a reminder that the consequences of an error or oversight are not about reports, insurance or a performance management review. They are about the deep-seated values of the organization.

The authenticity part of this capability has to do with being open about who you are and why you do things as you do. For a deeper dive about why leaders and companies need to do this, have a look at Simon Sinek’s TED Talk: “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” In Ms. Doderer’s case, why she does what she does is clear. For years she and her husband were private about the fact that their daughter has special medical needs. Today, she shares openly that story, as well as the lessons learned growing up in the household of a pediatric cardiologist and a teacher, learning values of service and the power of high expectations from yourself and others.

A leader might not be popular if she is clear about expectations and insists that her direct reports and their staff take accountability for the positions and the authority that they hold — especially if she is leading in a new direction. However, that kind of leadership, like the professor or coach who demanded our best, is a powerful force in pursuit of goals as well as the purposeful development of a culture.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, April 28, 2014.