Integrating Conscious Leadership into a Large Organization

It’s one thing to talk about creating a culture of conscious leadership into an organization. It is quite another to actually do it. In our ongoing exploration of conscious leadership, we spoke with Tod Tappert about the process that Greenville Health System in South Carolina is implementing to integrate conscious leadership into this 15,000 employee organization. Tappert is GHS’ Vice President, Chief of Staff and System Chief Learning Officer. As CLO, he heads the GHS Academy of Leadership and Professional Development.

Tell us about how Greenville Health System has integrated conscious leadership into its day to day operations?

It’s a little hard for me to think about this question from a day-to-day “operations” perspective. Really, we’re more interested in how the principles of conscious leadership, and the implicit invitation to greater self-awareness, impact our people’s day-to-day lives, and of course, there are huge implications for organizational culture. We’ve had a marathon runner’s perspective, rather than a sprinter’s because you don’t change a large organization overnight. It’s simply not possible.

We started about seven or eight years ago with the executive team and we’ve been widening the circle over the years. Currently, we have reached about 1,000 employees in the management and leadership roles. We’ve been inviting them to be more aware of how they are showing up with respect to the people they interact with, with respect to their responsibilities, with respect to their relationship to GHS. One of our goals is to create a common vocabulary that is known across the organization and that supports our invitation to become more aware as conscious leaders and professionals.

One example is when we talk about being “above the line” or “below the line.” Picture an imaginary line. When you’re above the line, you are curious, open, and ready to learn. If you’re below the line, you’re closed, defensive, certain that you’re right. Thinking about our 1,000 managers and leaders, if we were to ask these people ‘where are you right now,’ they understand that we aren’t likely asking them to report their room number of physical location. We’ve got enough of a common language now that they understand we are checking in with their emotional state. Are they above the line and able to consider possibilities that they haven’t imagined…or not?

Beyond management employees, we redesigned our New Employee Orientation process. Now all new employees get exposure to this approach to increasing awareness. Everyone goes through at least two days of orientation. On their very first day of employment, they are introduced, at a very high level, to some of the principles of conscious leadership, including this idea of above and below the line. Also at orientation, we give them tools of conscious professionalism. For example, we teach about the real power that lies in a few deep breaths. We teach the same focused, tactical breathing techniques that the military uses to help soldiers stay focused in combat.

Some of our leaders are taking the initiative to bring these concepts to their teams. Our CEO talks about these ideas with front-line employees at quarterly Town Hall Meetings. We are seeing this common language begin to penetrate beyond management and leadership and into many areas within the health system.

What has surprised you about integrating conscious leadership at GHS?

There have been two surprises, both good.

I have at times heard people talking about conscious leadership, people who I wouldn’t have thought were necessarily paying attention. About a year ago, I gave our management an assignment: I asked them to think about their personal leadership legacy and capture it in a few short words. Last week, someone who is very senior in the organization and is very busy referenced his leadership legacy in a group meeting that I was attending. He shared with the group that when I asked him to do that assignment a year ago, he thought long and hard about the question and then shared the result with the group last week. That he took the assignment to heart, that he thought about it, and that he was still thinking about it surprised me. When he mentioned this, I was almost teary-eyed. I feel very tenderhearted when I hear things like this from people I might not think are paying attention.

The second surprise is the “snowball effect” we’ve seen. You know, to make a snowman, you take a small ball of snow and roll it and roll it and it gets bigger and bigger. That’s happening here at GHS. If I had predicted when we started 7-8 years ago where we’d be, I would have been so wrong because we are so much farther than I could have hoped or imagined.

What has been most difficult about integrating conscious leadership at GHS?

For many years, we had a fair amount of quiet resistance to conscious leadership. There was a perception that the work wasn’t relevant to business and therefore a poor use of time. We’ve had to work intentionally to grow the belief within the organization that this is relevant, that it’s not “touchy feely.” One thing we do is give examples wherever we can that others in business are thinking about these ideas, too.

When Daniel Goleman writes about emotional intelligence in the Harvard Business Review, we talk about it. When the U.S. military teaches tactical breathing to combat soldiers, we talk about it. When I’m talking to a new group of leaders or staff, I try to nip in the bud any concerns that this work we’re doing isn’t substantive. Harvard is not a “touchy feely” organization. The military is certainly not a “touchy feely” organization.

What is the biggest benefit you believe GHS has felt from integrating conscious leadership into its culture?

We are building the business case for conscious leadership. We are building stronger, more nimble teams and they are getting more done. We are seeing higher levels of alignment with the goals of GHS.

Another exciting development is that we are in the very early stages of collaborating with Clemson University on research to answer key questions about the benefits of conscious leadership. It is too early to make definitive statements, but we have an inkling that our work is having a positive impact on employee engagement, patient satisfaction, and possibly even quality and safety. We hope to begin publishing results by the end of the year, but this is a longitudinal project, so we’ll be telling this story over many years to come.

On a personal note, I feel so much gratitude to be able to do this work. I have a very real sense that what we’re doing has a very important purpose: we are arming our employees with perspectives, tools, and practices that can help them better manage some of the stress of our rapidly evolving health care environment. This, in turn, has the potential of impacting the experience of our patients and their families as they interact with the health system and think about taking healthy responsibility for their lives.

To GHS, what is the difference between practising conscious leadership and being a conscious organization?

We don’t talk about GHS being a conscious organization. Instead, we invite an individual perspective around conscious leadership. We do, however, think about the impact our decisions and actions have on our employees, our patients, and the community. So, in the sense that as a collection of conscious leaders the decisions we make may represent the work of a conscious organization, we just might be one. We just haven’t talked about ourselves this way before. It’s an interesting idea to ponder.