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Relationships Are at the Heart of Facilitative Leaders

By Phil Bors on July 31st, 2018

A Conversation with Wade Norwood

Risa Wilkerson’s recent post about a culture of compassion prompted me to reflect on how leaders can both embody and create it in their own communities. One such leader is Wade Norwood, who recently became Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for Common Ground Health (CGH) in Rochester, NY. Those who know Wade are well aware of his commitment to community, connecting with others, and developing relationships. These attributes have served him well during an impressive career, which has included serving as Rochester’s youngest City Council member (he was 25 entering office), New York State Assembly staff member, Board of Regents member, pastor, and most recently, the Chief Strategy Officer at CGH.

Wade’s transition to CEO seemed like the right time to talk with him about facilitative leadership and decades of work making communities more compassionate.

What experiences helped shape your approach as a leader and change agent?

It’s important not just to give messages, but to also receive them. The conflicts we feel as we work together on important causes often go unexpressed because we don’t feel safe doing so. Effective leaders are able to perceive that and elicit resolutions to conflict. They must make it safe for people to air their concerns. The most rewarding moments were when leaders said to me, “It looks like something’s on your mind. Tell me about that.”

How can government leaders help create communities of compassion and dignity?

Eleanor Roosevelt declared that the giving of love is an education in and of itself. Since leadership is rooted in relationships, it is built on the giving of love. So at the city council level, we will get a different outcome [if we keep this in mind]. Local governments should find opportunities for community engagement and interaction in what government does. For example, instead of calling in a consultant to determine where the zoning lines should be, we should ask residents where the lines and zones should be with help from professionals.

How can organizations outside government help create that culture of compassion?

It begins by having enough influential thought leaders with the relationships and ability to articulate that the essential mortar holding communities together is the attribute of caring and concern for one another. Leadership is not positional authority, it’s relational—the ability to influence the thoughts and actions of others. Also, strong leaders are equally influenced by others.

So at Common Ground Health, how do we put our data into the hands of communities? For instance, our high blood pressure project provided hypertension prevalence, health outcomes, and health systems data for African American and Latino health coalitions. It opened a conversation about what really helps us improve diets and activity levels, and what connects patients to their medical care team. With the advice of data-informed coalitions, we developed the “community” aspect of our prevention programs. We went to barbershops and beauty salons. It can be very powerful when we find community thought leaders, equip them with actionable data, and provide technical knowledge and support.

How can we cultivate leaders to improve the health of our communities?

First, organizations and systems must do the hard work of self-assessment: are opportunities for engagement and leadership equitably distributed? By and large, organizations’ committees are not chaired by people of color. Second, we need to provide opportunities for new leaders to understand the content and facts so that as they engage, they can do so meaningfully and credibly. Third, we should make it safe to learn by failing forward. Michael Jordan once said that you have to give people the right to miss the basket.

How can we facilitate leadership in ways that don’t reinforce inequities rooted in racism, income/wealth inequality, able-ism, and other systemic injustices?

Effective and authentic leadership is comfortable with dissonance and creative tension. Leadership is not group think. Leaders should be able to survive dissonance from different learning and leadership styles. For example, I do my best thinking when pacing, literally in motion. Inauthentic leadership might be uncomfortable with that and shut it down. When it comes to diversity, discomfort with difference of style is one of the biggest problems. We have to allow divergence in leadership styles.

If you could prioritize one social determinant of health in 2018, which would you devote your effort to?

Safe, stable housing in a predictable environment. When my son was a toddler, he always ended up in the bed between my wife and me. It didn’t matter what obstructions blocked the path from his bedroom, like laundry or boxes; he always navigated his way to us in the dark of the night. I was struck by how he would have been affected if we had moved every two months or did not have a stable home and predictable space. He had a fundamental security knowing that when he was home, he was safe. This reminds me how critical housing is for all children.

What makes you optimistic as you take the helm at Common Ground Health?

I’m hopeful because of the quality of young people in this community. They are wonderful and committed to building beauty and goodness in the world.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time