Leadership Legacy Series: Compelled to Create Change

“Rarely is it possible to study all of the instructions to a game before beginning to play, or to memorize the manual before turning on the computer. The excitement of improvisation lies not only in the risk of being involved but in the new ideas, as heady as the adrenaline of performance, that seems to come from nowhere.” ― Mary Catherine BatesonPeripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way

This is part 3 of a 9-part blog series focused on your Leadership Legacy: Playing a Bigger Game at Work. Today we highlight the story of an unlikely leader and an amazing woman, Penny George, who, along with a handful of dedicated allies, significantly shifted the perspective and practice of health care.

Be clear about this: Penny definitely does not consider herself a leader. So when I interviewed her about her leadership legacy, she pushed back. The organization she and her husband helped found in 2002, The Bravewell Collaborative, is aptly named. This is a collaboration of smart, savvy, focused individuals who collectively became change agents in an industry mired in generations of silo mentality: health care (or as it is often referred to as ‘disease care’). And now they are ‘sunsetting’ the Collaborative, 12 years after its launch, because the work has now become well entrenched in leading academic and medical institutions. Do you realize just how phenomenal that is? So clearly there is a legacy here to tout and celebrate.

The nature of playing a Bigger Game requires that you simply cannot do it alone. If you think you can, then it is really not a Bigger Game by definition. So, Penny had Allies and lots of them. They also had a magnetic force that bound them into a collective, driving the collaborative to design a dramatic shift — from a health care delivery system that seemed to forget the patient in lieu of treatments or technology, toward an integrative system that acknowledges patient needs on all levels – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. Therein we find their Compelling Purpose. They collectively became an irresistible force, by definition, the very essence of ‘compelling.’

In 12 short years the Consortium of Academic Healthcare Centers, one of the initiatives supported by Bravewell, grew from just 8 institutions to 58. Bravewell made it possible for this courageous group of leaders within major academic health centers to collaborate with each other, to become an engine of innovation in medical training, clinical care delivery, and research.  The list represents the best medical centers in the country committed to integrative medicine.“The work of The Bravewell Collaborative is resulting in a flourishing of patient care that is effective, sustainable and focused on health. People are now finding their way to integrative clinical care centers across the nation. Our family foundation would not have been able to have such a far-reaching impact in such a short amount of time if we had been working alone. This is the power of collaboration.”Penny George, President of the George Family Foundation and Co-Founder of The Bravewell Collaborative 

Compelling Purpose

All Bigger Game leaders we know are driven by a sense of personal mission. Penny’s personal statement of purpose was borrowed from words etched over the door to her high school:  “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.” As she reflects back on her life, those are the words that anchored her drive and her hunger throughout her life. She resists the traditional definition of vision as an end state, accomplished through a particular trajectory. Rather, she embraces the philosophy and practice that our values anchor our choices and when an opportunity presents itself – for example, to radically change the landscape of health care – we move toward it because we are compelled, not because it is written in our life plan. Penny has leaned into the work of transformation all her life – as a psychologist, as a philanthropist, as a survivor of cancer.

It was a personal event, the diagnosis of cancer nearly 20 years ago, and the way the experience was handled (a message left on her answering machine at home) left her reeling about how lacking in any personal connection medicine had become. Her hunger for a different experience, her yearning for a medical community that worked with her as a partner, and the optimistic belief that something different could actually be imagined prompted her to become a passionate change agent but a reluctant spokesperson.

As any Bigger Game unfolds, there is bound to be some wake. But with Penny’s midwestern accent and deep tap root of values, she shares her observations and opinions without making others feel defensive or judged. Far from that, her grace, diplomacy, and intelligence help her enroll others, even those stuck in the status quo, encouraging them to join her conversation about what is possible.

As The Bravewell Collaborative hands the reins over to the communities and leaders spread across the nation to carry on the work in their own particular business venues and back yards, Penny moves on to explore yet another Bigger Game:  aligning diverse cultural communities and agencies to share infrastructure and resources for the development of community health.

Ponder the question, what is your compelling purpose? What are the themes that seem to stitch your life together so far?