Quiet Riot

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Media, March 28, 2008

Anyone who's been through a divorce, death, or serious illness will tell you that adversity has a way of making or breaking relationships. It separates the weak from the strong, the loyal from the back-stabbing, the friend-for-life from the convenient-for-now. Perhaps more than any other event, adversity teaches you who you can count on--and who you can't.

Adversity in business is no different.

Last week I wrote about stay interviews and how organizations should use them to keep their best employees. But how do you know which employees are truly "best"? How do you know who will stand by you for today's successes and help you dig out from tomorrow's failures?

You might be surprised. It may not be the business school standout you've put on the executive fast-track; it may not be your managers; it may not even be the people with "chief" beside their names. As any leader who's been through tough times will tell you, loyalty and leadership during adversity are not guaranteed. It's during tough times that expected leaders sometimes disappear, and unexpected leaders emerge.

These leaders often come in non-traditional packaging. They don't always wear suits or hail from Harvard. They may not be the first people to speak up in management meetings or fit into the traditional leadership path, but they are committed to driving home the mission and they keep your organization running.

George Masi, executive vice president and COO of Harris County Hospital District in Houston, TX, calls these "quiet leaders."

I met Masi at ACHE's annual conference earlier this month. In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Masi's organization treated thousands of misplaced patients in a virtual hospital in Houston's Astrodome. Their rescue efforts tested hospital resources and staff like no other event in the organization's history, Masi said. And it was Harris County's "quiet leaders"--staff not in official leadership roles--who made the effort successful.

Hospital executives don't really know who their true leaders are until they are faced with adversity, Masi said. They'll be both pleased and disappointed by who rises to the top at those times. (In Masi's case, disappointment came in the form of a leader who left for vacation in the middle of the Katrina cleanup.)

An organization's success depends on its quiet leaders and their willingness and ability to rise to the top when top executives are tapped out. So, as leaders prepare their staffs and organizations for everyday challenges on calm days, they must prepare for hard times as well. "It's a no-notice war," Masi said.

In a lot of organizations, the CEO's role has evolved from one focused on hospital operations to one focused on strategic planning three to five years down the road. Part of this strategic planning includes succession planning and mentoring, but don't limit that preparation to your executive team or your "born leaders."

Who's outside of your executive suite? Who are your quiet leaders?

In times of adversity, it might be the community college intern or the soft-spoken mother of three who works nights in your ED who rises to the top. As Masi described, it might be the kid in shipping who hotwires a bus in order to deliver the first load of patients, some who'd missed dialysis for five or six days, to be triaged at the Astrodome.

How about you? How are you mentoring your future leaders? I'd love to hear about it.

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at mrowe@healthleadersmedia.com.
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