Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush: As a leader, how do you keep it real?

January 29, 2015, 4:35 PM UTC

I make it my business to fail – usually in unobstructed view, sometimes in grand fashion. I don’t for one minute mind exposing missteps however. Some might see that as a weakness, but I suspect it’s my vulnerability that helps me sway the hearts and minds of the people who follow me and my company on our mission to fix health care.

In business, you hear a lot about ‘authentic leadership;’ this is great, as long it’s encouraging leaders to go off the rails more. If leaders are truly in it for the mission, doing what feels good usually won’t be wrong, even if it goes against the approved path and conventional style. Even when it is wrong, there will be a lesson along the way. What I’m noticing is that the vulnerable, soft edges of leadership aren’t encouraged enough. “To err is human,” after all, so why does the world cringe so often at leaders’ unscripted, honest moments.

I believe great leaders show their whole selves. Does anyone remember “Mo” Cheeks, former NBA player and coach? In this one-minute YouTube video, you can see great, authentic leadership at its best: his actions are driven from the gut, are not something everyone would do, and after you hear the man’s singing voice, just try and tell me this is not a vulnerable moment for him. My point is that great leaders are not shackled to talking points or cycling through canned speeches. Really great leaders build or solve things differently for profound impact where most don’t even know it’s possible to tread. Apple used to call them the “crazy ones – round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently..”

When I started Athenahealth in my twenties, never in my wildest dreams did I think that the fine pages of a national business magazine would care about anything I did, but alas some of my own genuine, vulnerable, and impulsive moments have been cataloged in the January issue of Fortune. I’d like to think this attention is due to the fact that Athenahealth is fundamentally different from all others in health care. It’s because we’re disrupting the status quo; we bring patients closer to caregivers, information closer to the moments of care, and connect the care continuum.

In any event, Fortune captured the real me. In some ways this is disarming and a little jarring, but it’s not bad. Surround me with inspiring entrepreneurs and colleagues-in-arms who want to make health care work the way it should and I get very excited (increasing my likelihood to have fun, drink beer and play games). I wasn’t exposed for anything that I’m not. As we learned from Brene Brown, we must combat the idea of perfectionism and “dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.” How could the fraternal nature of like-minded enthusiasts out to create and bring innovation to health care be anything but good.

In health care, what needs exposure aren’t the after-hours antics of enthusiastic CEOs, but the gonzo state of disconnectedness in this profoundly dysfunctional industry of ours, and perhaps the many leaders whose actions and inactions are propping it up. It should be startling that we live in a world where the fax machine remains standard across our country’s best hospitals. This industry, which has put some $30 billion against digitizing patients’ medical records, is failing. Saying this out loud is a necessity because anything less propagates the falsehood of advancement. How will this change? We need more leaders in health care to be authentic, not be afraid to fail, and to find comfort in their own vulnerability.

Jonathan Bush is CEO and President of athenahealth, one health care’s fastest growing tech companies. He is author of, Where Does it Hurt?: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Fixing Health Care. He serves on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows.

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