Three Traits of Visionary Change Leaders

Jan 12, 2018, 9:00 AM, Posted by

We’re seeking new change leaders that embody these important qualities to help us build a healthier nation. If you share these values, consider applying for one of our leadership programs.

Caring Collaborative Committed: Three traits of visionary leaders

My change leadership journey was ignited by a spark of dissatisfaction when I was about 7 or 8 years old, growing up on the small island of Dominica. I walked into a doctor’s office with my mother, brother, and younger sister. My mother called the doctor from the phone in the lobby, and in minutes, we were whisked right into the consulting room, bypassing about two dozen other patients who looked tired and sick.

I imagined that these other families had driven for hours in a truck on dusty, potholed roads to get to this office in Roseau. They waited hours for medical care, only to be forced to wait longer to accommodate the needs of my family. That moment, jumping that line, felt awful. Right then, I decided to become a doctor so that I could make things better for people living in poverty.

That was the very first step: Naming my dissatisfaction with the way things were, and making the commitment to changing them. Now, many years later, I have an opportunity to reflect on that journey as we begin recruiting for the third cohort of Clinical Scholars, Culture of Health Leaders, Health Policy Research Scholars, and Interdisciplinary Research Leaders. I was drawn to this work because my own desire to upend the status quo is reflected in the vision of these programs for building a Culture of Health. I committed myself to leading this work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) because, like RWJF, I believe it will take a unique kind of leader to help our nation achieve this ambitious mission.

What kinds of traits does a change leader embody?

Local leaders tour a neighborhood as part of a city project. Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Mindy Fullilove, MD, and Dominic Moulden, BA, lead a community walk in Washington, D.C. As part of the program, they are examining how Orange, New Jersey, and the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C., have responded to the influx of newcomers in order to better help low- and moderate-income people remain in communities as they grow and change.
Kay Felix, Leadership for Better Health, RWJF “Caring, collaboration and commitment come from deep within, propelling leaders to take change out into the world.” – Kay Felix

1.  A Deep Sense of Caring for the World and People

Every one of the amazing people in RWJF's change leadership programs cares deeply about the world and about people. They see a gap between where we are and where we could be. They have declared that something must change—and that they must help create that change. I felt it deep in my belly that day at the doctor’s office. That deep, innate sense that caring is a key trait visionary change leaders must have.

Caring is just one piece of the leadership puzzle. Along my leadership journey, I have learned as much from my failures as from my successes. Early on, in my zeal to make change, I thought that being a strong leader meant telling people what to do in order to make my vision happen. Suffice it to say I didn’t make many friends that way—and ultimately found myself burning out.

2.   Fosters Collaboration

My health and my personal relationships suffered. From this place of loneliness and loss, I grew to recognize the second key attribute of change leadership: being collaborative.

Consider President John F. Kennedy. When he announced that we would send people to the moon, he did not know how we would get there. No one did. But he inspired others to figure it out and rallied them to fuel their success. You see, it’s not about the talents of the leader that gets big things accomplished; it’s the collective wisdom of the many people they enlist to bring their gifts and talents to bear. The vision of a Culture of Health is similar—it’s big, hairy, and audacious, and not one person or organization alone can get us there.

Collaborative leadership is also infinitely more rewarding than going it alone. For me it brings so much more joy to the work. That shift from “me” to “we” means you give up some ownership, to be sure. But you also see that the future is far bigger than what any one person can create. I am most proud—and most humbled—when I see a team come together, share different viewpoints and ideas, try new approaches that none of the individuals would have seen alone, and reach a brilliant solution together.

3.  Unwavering Commitment

None of this is quick or easy. Working to create change at a societal level is not a short-term game. Change leadership is about taking action today—and tomorrow...and the day after that...and the day after that—undeterred by the fact that the big payoff may be years or even generations away. That unwavering commitment is the third trait of the type of leaders who will build a Culture of Health. Committed change leaders continually ask questions, solve problems, and keep moving forward even when they or their team feel as if they cannot make any more progress.

Scholars, Leaders, staff, and trustees attend the RWJF Fall Leadership Institute conference. Scholars, Leaders, staff, and trustees attend the RWJF Fall Leadership Institute conference in Nashville. (Photo by Samantha Appleton)

Caring, collaboration and commitment come from deep within, propelling leaders to take change out into the world. They rally others to think differently, to see possibilities, to steer our society in new directions. And they are even more powerful when they come together with other leaders who approach mighty challenges from every possible perspective. As we look toward a Culture of Health—the future we wish to live in, a culture in which all have what they need to attain their best possible health—we know that it is this type of change leadership that gives us the best shot at success.

And it’s why we continue to make deep investments in leadership development programs that engage and connect these leaders. I continue to be inspired and, frankly, blown away by the caring, committed, collaborative, and brilliant people who have stepped forward to apply their work, their ideas and their passion to increasing equity and health across our nation.

Like me, many found their change leadership spark in personal experiences or seeing injustice in their communities. They gravitate toward this opportunity to take on complex issues in new ways, collaborating with people they might not have met otherwise. They tell us that our leadership programs have helped them get out of their silos, pushed them to look at challenges in new ways, and helped them let go of their assumptions about the “right” solutions to our nation’s most intractable problems.

The commitment they make to these programs is three to five years, but really, we ask them to make a commitment for life—to be a change leader advancing a Culture of Health in their field, profession, and community. We’re asking them to redefine leadership and the way they measure success.

This network of unstoppable leaders gives me infinite hope. As they collaborate to take on entrenched challenges—from food insecurity to gaps in rural health care to childhood instability—I can feel how they inspire and propel each other. They are the future, and it is bright.

Do you share our belief that health and equity are the keys to a better world? Or do you know someone who would flourish and do great things in our next cohort? Learn more about the programs.>>  

about the author

Kay Felix

Kaytura (Kay) Felix, MD, former managing director, Program, lead the Foundation's efforts to develop leaders through its many programs.