Joe Fifer: Why finance leaders require the courage to lead
Books, movies and even campaign themes — often, they don’t age well. Apart from those with classic themes, they can quickly come to seem irrelevant in our fast-paced environment.
So much has changed since I took office as HFMA chair 17 years ago. but I believe that my chair theme, “courage in leadership,” has the quality of timelessness, even though it doesn’t exactly qualify as a classic. We need courageous leadership now even more than we did when I served as Association chair in 2006-07.
Since then, healthcare finance leaders have been faced with one challenge after another: the Great recession, growing political polarization, an explosion in medical and information technology, rising consumer expectations, the imperative of improving healthcare value, the advent of healthcare disruptors, a global pandemic .‥ the list goes on.
I believe that no matter what challenges life throws at you, meeting them with courage is what matters most. In my very first column in 2006, I found inspiration in a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”
Back in the early 1990s, a consultant hired to guide my hospital through a merger gave me that advice as a matter of some urgency. Penny Rock, who had served as an army nurse in Vietnam before becoming an international executive healthcare consultant and coach, told me, “Your executive team is looking to you for leadership. You must go beyond your role as CFO to help these two organizations blend their very different cultures. You need to step up to this challenge.”
Well, I had some misgivings. What did I, as a finance guy, know about blending organizational cultures? But I did step up. I got out of my comfort zone. And I’m glad I did.
You may not have the good fortune of having a similar experience. So consider this your wake-up call. What does courage in leadership look like?
- It’s small everyday acts — like speaking up at meetings.
- It’s actively seeking opportunities to have difficult conversations rather than hoping you don’t get asked the tough question — in other words, taking on the elephant in the room.
- It’s going beyond what’s expected, taking a risk for the right reason and doing what’s right because it is right.
If you don’t consider courage as one of your core strengths, that’s OK. It’s never too late to develop it. Consider the story of John “The Penguin” Bingham, who ran his first marathon in midlife despite being a self-described “overweight couch potato.” Afterwards, he said the miracle isn’t that he finished; it’s that he had the courage to start. Bingham went on to become an unlikely hero of the modern running boom.
At HFMA, we know that succeeding in healthcare is a marathon, not a sprint. And we’re here to support you every step of the way. We can supply the tools and resources you need. But we can’t supply the courage to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. That part’s on you. So don’t back down. Have courage in your leadership. Do the things you think you cannot do.
That still rings true some 80 years after Eleanor Roosevelt said it. Because it wasn’t just timely advice. Like courage in leadership, it’s also timeless.