Anatomy of a Leader

What does it take to be a great leader? Flexibility, strength, courage, humility – the list could go on. It’s the question asked by countless leadership books, numerous consulting agencies, and every ambitious rising star. We asked local business and organization leaders for their opinion on what is the most important characteristic of a leader.

David Wade

President & CEO, EPB

I’d like to highlight a quality that is often overlooked – patience. In an age of “move fast and break things,” people sometimes don’t take time to ask tough questions and search for better alternatives than the first few that come to mind. Being a successful leader often means giving others the responsibility and the space to come up with solutions that arise from collaboration and a range of perspectives. Patience is not inaction. It is acting with forethought and intention in the right time after assembling the people, the resources, and the strategy to do the job properly.

Becky Hansard

Head of School, Silverdale Baptist Academy

This past May, I challenged a room full of seniors attending a Baccalaureate service to embrace the “gift of failure.” A dynamic and true leader has the good sense to learn from their failures. Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A was once asked how to become a successful leader. He answered that it was by making right decisions. When asked how he made right decisions, he stated it was by experiences. When asked how one gains experience, he stated it was by making bad decisions. So true. My hardest and best decisions have been born of failure. It is during this state of failure that all bets are off and raw decisions are made. Those are the times I have made the most innovative and far-reaching decisions for the organization I lead.

Hiren Desai

President & CEO, 3H GROUP, INC

To be a great leader, you need to be a good listener and have effective communication skills. A leader is able to make decisions and, more importantly, take responsibility for those decisions despite the outcome. Finally, a great leader is able to share his wisdom to encourage his teammates to be future leaders.

Carol Sim, RN, MPH

President & CEO, Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation

The most important characteristic of a great leader to me is integrity. Leading requires smarts, courage, persistence, and a lot of hard work, but without integrity, I believe the cause is always lost. Life is not a solo sport, and people can detect if someone is a fraud. True integrity requires honesty, humility, and the determination to do the right thing even when it is hard.

Gregory D. Willett

Estate and Tax Planning Chair, Shareholder, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, PC

Leaders may vary by personality, experience, and agenda, but those who thrive focus on the lifeblood of the business – the people. Great leaders are people-centered. They develop cultures where employees, clients, and partners feel valued and empowered to come to work every day, reach goals, and perform at optimum levels. When we as leaders put our people first, products and services improve, deals are made, and progress is achieved. Integrity, loyalty, respect – there are many characteristics we value. But leaders who make people a priority drive business forward.

Jeff Jackson

Southeast Market President, First Tennessee Bank

Leadership begins with commitment, whether it’s in pursuing a passion or building a company. First Tennessee encourages leadership at all levels. Most recently, our bank merged with another. This led to the unique collaboration of cultures and systems. Working together, we’re developing strategies that will meet and anticipate the needs of our customers. This is so important, and we know that it will take strong communication to accomplish this task. For our combined team, there’s passion and commitment to the company we continue to build together, which in turn, encourages positivity. This allows our team to lead at all levels. At First Tennessee, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dr. Autumn A. Graves

Head of School, Girls Preparatory School

Sometimes leaders have to make decisions that are not necessarily popular or easy but are right and in the best interest of the organization. As long as those decisions come from a place of integrity, then true leadership is displayed. In my role as head of GPS, I not only lead a talented team of educators and support staff, but each day also presents an opportunity for me to demonstrate leadership for hundreds of middle and high school girls. I hope they learn from me to always act with integrity and to never compromise their values. Having empathy and a sense of humor also goes a long way.

Tom Ozburn, MHA, MBA, FACHE

President & CEO, Parkridge Health System

Integrity is the mark of a great leader. By definition, integrity is a strict adherence to a moral code, but I think it goes beyond that. Integrity isn’t something you achieve; it’s a constant pursuit – and that pursuit is the example people follow. The leaders I respect enthusiastically pursued their goals for the organization while always holding the interests of their employees as paramount. Leading with integrity establishes a foundation of trust and helps ensure everyone participates and shares in the success of the organization. 

Coleman Foss

CEO, Tennova Healthcare-Cleveland

Leadership requires determined strength and focus. Accommodating your customers requires a willingness to serve and be flexible while seeking to meet their needs. Conversely, leading an organization demands an unwavering commitment to your mission and vision. Strength is required to weather challenges yet still being thoughtful of other opinions, both internally and externally. Being a leader is a privilege but to truly be successful, it requires absolute integrity. 

Donnie Hutcherson, CPA, GCMA, MBA

Managing Partner, Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough

Fairness and consistency are two of the most basic foundations upon which great leadership is built. Your staff members need to be able to predict your decisions and your direction, and they can do that when you are consistently fair. The next important characteristic is to be a visionary. If you can see what others don’t or can’t, if you can envision how the landscape of your company or business can change with each opportunity you choose to take or not to take, you will make wise decisions and successfully lead your staff. I also believe a good leader is willing to take calculated risks with the right information and motivation. Personally, I have found the most gratification as a leader when I listen to my staff with an open mind, even if something is outside of my comfort zone. I always try hard to say yes to new ideas and embrace new concepts my employees share with me.

Rick McKenney

President & CEO, Unum Group

Leadership is exhibited by those who find purpose in their work, love what they do, and share that passion with others. When I look around Unum, I’m humbled by our team of strong leaders who are all passionate about our commitment to helping people and their families through difficult times. They tackle challenges head on and lead others with courage and optimism, which enables them to consistently spot opportunities for improvement and drive success. Additionally, great leaders – those that really stand out – also take time to make personal connections and be a source of inspiration for others.

Jim Vaughn

Eastern Tennessee Region President, SunTrust, Inc.

The charge of a leader is to bring clarity to complexity and purpose to the work. Those are two critical components to ensuring your team delivers on your company’s goals and objectives. By bringing clarity to complex issues a large company faces, each teammate can better serve clients and act as one team. At SunTrust, our purpose is to Light the Way to Financial Well-Being. If we take that purpose and apply it to every client interaction, we know we will help them achieve their goals and live our purpose at the same time.

Jill Hartness

Head of School, Boyd Buchanan School

Humility. For me, humility is not self-deprecation, but the acknowledgment that any version of success would not have happened if not for a larger sphere of influence and support. Without my family, I’m a lonely leader. Without my mentors, I’m too proud of a leader. Without my team, I’m an ineffectual leader. And without my God, I’m no leader at all. It’s a persistent reminder that the blessing of leadership lies within those whom I serve and serve alongside. Contributing to my community through leadership is a joy because of those who have brought me here, stand with me, and The One who has always been my guide.

John W. Sorrow

Regional Agency Executive, TN and AL, Corporate SVP, McGriff Insurance Services (formerly BB&T Huffaker Insurance)

It has taken me a long time as a leader to figure out the real secret sauce. Creating a culture of positivity is the only way to consistently grow in today’s competitive environment. It is completely controllable. It removes excuse making. It is fun! A positive culture creates career satisfaction, engagement, and creativity. It is incumbent to surround yourself with those that believe in themselves, what they represent, and are encouraged to be honest in creative ways to move forward to solve challenges. It is very important to replace those with negative energy with those that possess positive energy. The old saying “whether you think you can or you can’t, you are probably right” is usually true.

Mitch Patel

President & CEO, Vision Hospitality Group

A great leader must simply possess the heart of a servant. Truly caring for your team builds trust and loyalty that is then reflected in the culture and drive of the company. There are only two ways people will follow you. One is out of fear, which is never sustainable, and the other is out of mutual respect and admiration. This respect is not based on hierarchy; it has to be earned over time. When you have a deep admiration for your team, they will strive to follow your vision.

Janelle Reilly

President & Chief Operating Officer, CHI Memorial

When asked, many will say there are seven common characteristics of leadership: vision, empathy, honesty, communication, courage, commitment, and intentionality. However, the most important is actually humility. As leaders, we are integral to the success of our organization but not the sole source of it. Humility comes from wanting to be part of something greater than yourself and cultivating a shared vision that inspires, builds trust, and, when well executed, makes every team member believe success would not have been achieved without their contribution. It takes tremendous courage to be a humble leader. It means being authentic and transparent in communications and taking less than your share of the credit but more than your share of the blame. It is recognizing that we serve the people that we lead.

Susan Harris

President & Chief Operating Officer, See Rock City

Great leaders are authentic. With the speed of business today, being flexible and dynamic is critical to sustainable success, and so our work lives move with an almost omnipresent need to modify, develop, amend, adjust, and shift. Teams look for direction from their leaders in times of transformation, and authenticity will win the day. Being real and developing trust by honestly communicating about the business, the vision for success, and the organizational expectations allows team members to contribute and move the company forward – perhaps even further than hoped! We spend more of our waking hours at work than we do anywhere else, so leaders who value the relationship investments made by their team by participating in a genuine and authentic way unleash the power of their people in a way that will create competitive advantage.

Greg A. Vital

Founder & CEO, Morning Pointe Senior Living

While many qualities define a textbook leader, one characteristic I emphasize at this stage of my career in the senior health care industry is mentorship. There were individuals who offered guidance to me that made a difference in the early years of my professional life. Now, it is my turn, and I’m passionate about mentoring rising professionals as they establish a foundation on their path toward leadership. Ongoing change in senior health care makes it very important to mentor and grow bench strength through education, training, and experience. A corporate culture that rewards associates who exhibit leadership qualities and exceed expectations helps empower and encourage the next generation of leaders.

Larry Schumacher

CEO, CHI Memorial
SVP of Operations, Southeast Division, Catholic Health Initiatives

A guiding principle for me is to develop your passion. There are some schools of thought that passion is in your DNA, but I believe it is about finding that spark that ignites your professional and personal life and provides a focus for all you do. I believe passion is grounded in faith and servant leadership, and I have been privileged to be part of the CHI Memorial ministry. My philosophy is to recruit the highest caliber of leaders who are well suited for the organization and empower them to use their talents to further our mission to create healthier communities.

Todd Fortner

President and CEO, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union

TVFCU’s best leaders recognize that their work is meaningful to our community, members, and coworkers. They recognize that their work provides an opportunity to improve the lives of our neighbors and lift the financial prospects for our entire community. Their success is the result of establishing authentic relationships with their employees and peers, which establishes trust in decision making, which then benefits our membership. These leaders motivate their staff by emphasizing their value to the organization, providing open and honest feedback, and recognizing outstanding performance. While technical skills are an important component of success, leaders who build authentic relationships will excel.

Becky Farmer

CEO, Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics

While someone has to take ultimate responsibility for the implementation of decisions within an organization, at Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics, it’s always important to make listening to everyone part of the process. Whether positive or negative, I strive for all communications to be a safe experience. Early in my career, a mentor taught me to embrace constructive criticism. He believed that the person willing to take the risk of constructive communication was showing genuine care for the organization. While it is sometimes frustrating to feel that an idea or opportunity has not been received positively, I always try to show genuine gratitude and consideration to the team member who has the courage to share their opinion. How can one grow or become a better person, leader, mentor if it’s not a safe experience to share concerns? It’s simple! Remember … God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason!

Andy Berke

Mayor of Chattanooga

Leadership is about being consistent in your values and mission but not unreasonably rigid in your ideology or approach. The mission of our office is to help people break down the barriers that prevent them from living the lives they want. That statement is posted all over city hall so that everyone on our team knows why we serve, who we serve, and what we’re trying to accomplish. That constant reminder keeps us motivated and focused. Knowing our goal also allows us to thoughtfully consider each issue that arises and then figure out the most effective and creative way we can address it.

Kevin M. Spiegel, FACHE

President & CEO, Erlanger Health System

There are many qualities that define a leader, but only a few key qualities determine how well a leader will succeed. A leader must have integrity, create a high-performing organizational culture, stay focused on providing exceptional service, and build a talented leadership team and overall workforce. Having determination and being innovative and forward thinking are necessary for a leader to build a top-performing enterprise. Additionally, one must create a vision, promote that vision with passion, and develop and execute a robust strategy that will disrupt the marketplace. Although vision and strategy are important, the execution of the strategy is what makes the difference. And finally, a leader must celebrate the organization’s achievements with their associates.

Tracy Wood

CEO, Hospice of Chattanooga

Overall, I think the most important quality of a good leader is that she or he is willing to make a decision. You cannot be afraid to take risks or to affect change as needed. Teams expect that from their leader. I have learned that when faced with a decision, leadership of my team requires me to step up so we can stand out.

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