Courage Is, as Courage Does

“Give me tangible solutions— not comfort!”

These are Holly Ladd’s words, painstakingly, but emphatically, typed on an alphabet chart through eye scanning technology. The technology also translates her messages into her actual voice.

Holly is an award-winning, international health care lawyer, afflicted with a terminal disease. She has only days to live, but she is courageously leading her own care and demanding service on her own terms from her service providers.

These days, courageous leadership is a “hot topic” in the business community. “Courageous leaders are in high demand and short supply,” says Forbes.com contributor Susan Tardanico.

Holly herself blogs and publishes about it, but more importantly, she lives it every day.

She is passionate about people: helping those with disabilities, ensuring their civil rights are upheld, and developing national and international health care systems to support their needs. She is also passionate about living. But now, Holly is the one with extraordinary needs and living an up-close-and-personal experience with the health care system she has helped to shape as her body fails her.

I cannot stop thinking about Holly and her family.

What she demonstrates and represents to me is the frequent “missing link” in human service leadership and delivery— unflinching, raw courage. For organizations, this means the capacity to keep innovating, thriving, and overcoming challenges, even under adverse circumstances. But courage isn’t something you can buy, teach, or feign. You either are courageous or you are not.

There is much to challenge human service delivery these days—implementation of the Affordable Care Act, new models of care, new standards of practice, new methods of payment, new performance expectations—all imposed on a platform of the most profound economic recession in U.S. history since the Great Depression, with significant service erosion and funding atrophy. Moreover, funders are no longer interested in purchasing services but rather are paying for outcomes and demanding evidence that their fiscal investment measurably improved a condition or circumstance. In short—they want to know they got what they paid for.

So, what does this mean?

Human services do not have the luxury of hiring leaders who simply react to change. Organizations must ensure those at the helm are courageous, proactive leaders—forward thinkers who not only ride the wave of change and “lean in, ”as one current CEO describes it, but stay ahead of the wave, set the direction, and lead. Courageous leaders do not wait for purchasers, legislators, boards, or constituents to create minimum expectations—they will raise the bar with bold innovation and inspiring practice and will be where the wave will eventually land.

Courageous Leaders must also be decisive, nimble, and have the capacity to mobilize their resources—most importantly, their human resources–their staff. A leader who cannot engender staff support, energy, and effort, is not and cannot be an effective leader. But more than marshalling staff to new directions, the courageous leader must have the capacity to recognize the courage in those he or she serves.

This is where Holly represents the “essential link” in human service delivery. She has the extraordinary courage to manage her illness on her own terms in the best way she knows how. Like the children, adolescents, adults, and families who knock on Grafton’s door every day, she demonstrates remarkable grace and perseverance in the face of a life-defining challenge. Like them, she is looking for and demanding solutions.

The courage and leadership she has shown throughout her health care crisis have afforded“found opportunities”—invaluable new experiences like being at Fenway Park for the World Series, seeing her son graduate from college, participating in an international documentary about voice “message banking,” receiving an international award for courageous leadership, and most importantly, spending time with those she loves and cares about.

This is what mobilizes me.  I draw fierce inspiration and admiration from the courageous leadership I see in Holly, in Grafton’s leadership team, and that in those we serve. It compels me to demand the best from what our service system can offer and push the bounds for those who must face a life challenge that no one would want or ask for.

Dr. Janice LeBel currently serves on the board of directors at Grafton Integrated Health Network.  She is a licensed, Board-Certified Psychologist with more than twenty five years experience in the public sector working primarily in mental health but also with child welfare, juvenile justice, and intellectual and developmental disability populations. She oversees a statewide system of inpatient, secure residential and community-based care for children and adolescents. Dr. LeBel leads the Department of Mental Health’s’ nationally-recognized Restraint/Seclusion (R/S) Prevention Initiative and an Interagency Initiative with the same focus involving all child-serving state agencies and the public and private special education schools in Massachusetts. She is a founding member of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors’ Office of Technical Assistance Center’s (OTA) teaching faculty, co-authored an evidenced-based curriculum on R/S Prevention, and works to implement trauma-informed care and R/S prevention efforts throughout the United States and internationally.

Dr. LeBel was awarded the Governor’s Carballo Award for her work, which is the highest public service award in Massachusetts. In 2009, Dr. LeBel and her team received the Gloria Huntley Award from National Alliance for the Mentally Ill for their statewide R/S prevention effort. In 2010, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration awarded the MA DMH Child/Adolescent Statewide System, its first Restraint/Seclusion Reduction Recognition Award. Dr. LeBel has provided expert testimony at Congressional Briefings and legal proceedings. She has researched and published on seclusion and restraint-related issues and presented at many national and international forums. Dr. LeBel also serves as a peer reviewer for several journals.