Living Leadership

Living Leadership

The dark side of leadership

Julie Thorson
Julie Thorson

Have you ever considered leadership a negative word? Chances are no. All of the books we read, articles we Google, and leaders we aspire to be like are positive. Leadership most times involves great stories that inspire us to be better people. Of course, leadership is positive. Leadership quite simply means becoming a better person.

So what about those days where people are just stupid? How do you lead them? How do you motivate them when you don't feel very motivated yourself?

In long-term care, there is no break. We don't close the doors on a snow day, of course. We don't tell residents it's a national holiday today so we won't be open. We work in their homes.

Can we afford to not be leaders in our communities any day of the week? No. So there's the dark side when we are home in bed: Leadership must exist in our communities regardless of the day or time.

Leadership never sleeps. That's daunting.

It's not enough to have just your “supervisors” consider themselves leaders. We must have our hands-on, direct care, carry-the-torch-in-the-darkness employees believe they are leaders.

Do they have the critical thinking skills at 3 a.m. to make the right decision for the residents we serve? Chances are none of us would say unequivocally YES. That can be a dark place because we might have to trust many hundred employees to make the right decision more times than they make the wrong one. And guess what? Some people make the wrong decisions more often than not!

The burden in our world is the wrong decision, wrong reaction; a moment or impulse that can change the course of events in an instant may have serious consequences. I'm not talking just about the regulatory consequences. They are a given in the world we live in. I'm talking about the negative impact we may have on those we serve.     

Gosh, I'm bringing myself down. I write about leadership. I try to live leadership. How can that bring anyone down? Bottom line: It's hard work. The days that the messiness seems too tough to bear are the days we need to rely on others and our residents to lift us up.

Leadership can be dark, and it can be lonely. It takes courage, which can be taxing. Pushing others and holding others accountable can be draining. But perhaps the hardest part may be holding ourselves accountable even when it's tough.

Remaining consistent, telling our story to those who don't want to listen, and not giving in to the pressures of the easy way is difficult. It's not all roses and butterflies. It takes gumption, and that might not always be pretty.

We can be self-aware, hold hands and show appreciation all day long. But leadership is about all that and the dark stuff too. The trick is to find the balance and the strength to do the heavy lifting, whether it's doing it ourselves of coaching others to do it at 3 a.m.

Julie Thorson is the president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a continuing care retirement community in Fort Dodge, IA, that earned the Governor's Award for Quality in 2014. A coach's daughter at heart, she is a former part-time nursing home social worker who quickly ascended the leadership ranks. A licensed nursing home administrator, she is a current participant in LeadingAge's Leadership Academy. 

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