Leaders: Use stories to help achieve sustainable superior performance

Franklin D. Roosevelt TIME Man of the Year 1933 Color PhotoDuring World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Seattle, Wash., to meet with 18,000 aircraft workers at Boeing Corporation. FDR brought with him a young airplane pilot named Hewitt Wheless from Texas.

The pilot had escaped death, thanks to the resilience of the bullet-riddled B-17 plane he flew out of harm’s way. His plane had been built at that very Boeing plant.

Do you think seeing and hearing that young pilot thank them for saving his life connected them to a common cause? You bet it did.

Although the work required for America to catch up to the output of the Nazi military-industrial complex was daunting, Americans rose to the challenge by persevering through long, hard hours of menial factory work.

FDR’s visits helped transform welders and riveters into freedom fighters. From 1941 until 1945 American aircraft companies out-produced the Nazis three to one and built nearly 300,000 airplanes.

People remember stories. Effective leaders like FDR identify and communicate stories to inspire people. Here are three key points to consider when using stories to enthuse, engage and energize people.

New Insights on Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

In Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do, D. Theodore George, M.D., a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, describes a new model for understanding America’s surge in emotional and behavioral disorders.  Earlier this year, a report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found that comparing a peer group of 17 wealthy countries, Americans under 50 now have the lowest life expectancy and fall at the bottom (i.e. were the worst) of nearly every morbidity category from deaths by substance abuse, sexual-related diseases, infant mortality, violence and sedentary lifestyles that contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. The report points out that in the years following World War II, America was near or at the top of the peer group.  It rightly concludes that something clearly is wrong but, unfortunately, fails to provide a satisfactory explanation.  The problem has become so acute that earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released figures that show suicide rates haven sharply increased so that more Americans now die from suicide than from motor vehicle accidents.

Fortunately, Dr. George’s book helps us understand what’s going wrong.  In his view, traumas experienced by 75 percent of the population result in faulty brain wiring that makes people vulnerable to the stressors, threats and fears we experience in modern life, including the chronic stress many people experience in today’s workplace.  The faulty wiring misinterprets threats and fears by blowing them way out of proportion.  This results in emotional and behavioral disorders.  When people don’t feel well emotionally – i.e. they are angry, anxious, withdrawn, bored, depressed, etc. – they frequently cope in ways that result in addiction (e.g. substance abuse, promiscuity, porn addiction, eating disorders, cutting).  Although these addictive behaviors provide temporary relief, they hijack the brain’s reward system and eventually kick in the anti-reward system so that people need a fix of the coping behavior to feel better from the unpleasant sensations of withdrawal.   

Feel Lonely and Left Out at Work?

Recently, I’ve sensed more people feel lonely and left out at work.  With years of layoffs, those who remain carry greater workloads.  This crowds out time to connect with colleagues.  Managers are also stretched and have less time to connect with the people they are responsible for leading.  When I ask people at the seminars I teach which element of a Connection Culture — Vision, Value or Voice — they would like to increase in their workplace culture, it’s nearly always Voice.   One result of this is that there has been a decline of connection, community and the spirit of unity in organizations.

Life-Giving Cultures in Health Care Organizations

You can’t give what you don’t have. That’s why cultures in health care organizations need to be life-giving in order to energize health care workers who give so much of themselves to their patients. This is an important issue today.  In some health care-related fields, as many as one-third of employees leave their jobs each year. What can be done?  To learn more, read the article I wrote for the Fall 2012 Addiction and Behavioral Health Business Journal entitled, “Connection Culture: Creating a Life-Giving Environment in Health Care Organizations.”

A Healing Connection

We’ve been doing more work of late in the health care field, helping organizations such as the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center develop Connection Cultures that boost employee engagement and improve patient outcomes.   If you have a story to tell or are aware of practices that boost connection at hospitals, would you please post it on the comments below or email me at mstallard@epluribuspartners.com. Thank you.

On that score, while speaking recently at Texas Christian University, a student, Romel Schearer, told me about the remarkable story of Bill Cabeen, a cardiologist who had the courage to connect with one of his patients, Nikki Luederitz, rather than remain disconnected in the name of “professionalism.”  Dr. Cabeen’s courage and support not only saved Ms. Luederitz’s life, it changed her in a profound way. To learn how, listen to “The Tale of Two Hearts.”

New Research: Relationships Make Hospitals Great

The New York Times recently had an article entitled “What Makes a Hospital Great” that described new research concluding a hospital’s culture and the quality of relationships were the most important factors determining patient outcomes. This finding is consistent with our research that concluded leaders must be intentional about developing both “task excellence” and “relationship excellence” in order to achieve sustainable superior performance.  If leaders focus on task alone the eventual failure of relationships will sabotage excellence.

Connecting with Patients

Check out this great article from The New York Times entitled “A Physician Revives a Dying Art: The Physical.” It’s about Dr. Abraham Verghese, a doctor at Stanford who really knows how to connect with patients.  I’ve previously written that connection is critical to health care and cited the examples of Dr. Herb Pardes at New York-Presbyterian and my own observations during my wife Katie’s battles with breast and advanced ovarian cancer.  Katie is cancer free today.

Connection Critical to Healthcare

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about healthcare organizations.  I recently spoke in New Haven to nearly 500 managers at Yale-New Haven Hospital and in Philadelphia to a group of CEOs that included several leaders from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.  I’ve written from the patient’s perspective about my wife Katie’s battles with breast and advanced ovarian cancer and about Dr. Herb Pardes, head of New York-Presbyterian Health System, and how he is leading his organization to deliver patient-centered care. Recently, I interviewed Bill Shannon, Chief Wisdom Officer, at DaVita, Inc., the leading provider of kidney dialysis services and shortly I’ll be hosting a webcast with Pat Charmel, CEO of Griffin Hospital, a perennial member of Fortune’s best places to work list.

Two books I recently read reminded me again just how critical connection is to health care.