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  • Writer's pictureJames Lee

Are You Passionate About Passion?

  1. I am not passionate about senior living. Senior living is where I pursue my passion.

  2. I am not a senior living leader. Senior living is where I practice leadership.

  3. I am not a senior living expert. Senior living is where I am honing my expertise.

Well, there's something you might not hear every day in my industry, but it's at least my truth. Too often, I think people mistake their profession or their industry as their passion.

Particularly in mission driven organizations, that word passion has run amok.

It is so pervasive in use that it has almost lost its true meaning. Some senior leaders will read that statement and will quickly and resolutely dismiss it as simply untrue. But survey the caregivers who turnover at a rate of nearly 100% a year across our INDUSTRY, and they'll score our report card a little differently.

So I propose a different relationship with the word passion.

Hierarchy of Goals

Angela Duckworth, PhD, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Grit - The Power of Passion and Perseverance, says this:

"In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in fact, some way or another, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures."

I loved how she articulates in her book that we should view our goals in a hierarchy and that the concrete lower-level goals ultimately drive our bigger, intangible life (ultimate) goals. The low-level goals don't determine our grit. They are more means to an end goal. I adapted her illustration of a hierarchy of goals and overlaid my MBAR Leadership model on top of it. Here's the original MBAR Leadership Model article if you're interested in some background, or alternatively here's the podcast episode about MBAR.

Passion is that life philosophy that drives us. Whether you are in the senior living industry, running an ice cream shop, or discussing it with your imaginary volleyball friend, Wilson, on a deserted island, your life philosophy is your life philosophy.

The problem I'm starting to have with people saying "I'm passionate about senior living" is that the actions, habits, and operating activities of an organization and its leadership seldom align with that statement and more importantly - the organization's paths never change.

I think sometimes we mask our poor strategy and execution with claims of passion.

Start with Motivation

Your organization shouldn't be results oriented. It should be passion oriented around the mission. In all seriousness, mission statements are great, but after they are written they become encased behind a thin plexiglass and get hung up on our walls never to be touched again.

Let's say that instead of generically saying we are passionate about senior living (or whatever mission driven profession you are in) we are more specifically passionate about making life better for seniors. Okay, I can work with that. Then EVERYTHING WE DO has to align back to this, and we must be our own harshest critics when it comes to assuring that we are living that mission.

If the toughest critics to our industry are people in the news (as often is our claim) then we need to step up our existential self-awareness and take those mission statements off our walls and get out the red ink!

You are what you report on. If you have a thousand data points around sales but no data around your mission, you are not a mission-driven organization. What you are is passionate about sales.

Organizational Self Awareness

Leaders must set the tone of strategic execution for their organization. Does everything we do align back to executing on this strategy? Does our strategy include a clear and compelling differentiation in how we deliver value to our customers better than our competitors? What are the leadership habits of our company (ex: boots on the ground vs. reports from above)?

Whatever big goals leaders discuss in board rooms and c-suite meetings, these are only one degree of separation from - and therefore most indicative of - the true passion of the organization. Read that again and again.

Here's another way of saying this - we are what our leaders repeatedly do.

If we go even more specific and say our passion is "making lives better for seniors who need a little support to continue to pursue their purpose." Great, then we should have many, many ways of measuring against that.

  • Substantive and consistent market research on what problems seniors face and publishing those findings (when was the last time you surveyed seniors who were not in your communities or your sales database?)

  • Baked-in methods for measuring resident satisfaction across ALL of our services. Surprise, the annual satisfaction surveys don't cut it. That's like checking expiration dates in your fridge once a year.

  • Investments in resident engagement compared to the paltry less-than-1% of operating budgets that are given to activities departments.

If you are a leader in any mission-driven organization, you can apply this same kind of self-check. Start with organizational motivations (clues can be found in the mission statement of your company) and then truly account for how you are spending your time as a leader. Your organization is what YOU repeatedly do.

Don't Make Assumptions About People's Passions

Hiring for people who are passionate about your passion seems like a good idea. But, as I started off in this article, my passion is not necessarily senior living. Senior living is where I pursue my passion.

Don't get me wrong - I LOVE working with seniors, and I love working with people who love seniors. I hope I get to be in this industry for my entire career, but if you take me out of the senior living industry, I will still be pursuing my passion: helping people to be their best selves by also being my best self.

I created a podcast called Level Up, because I wanted to focus more on helping leaders be awesome at how they lead. I started an MBA program at the age of 35, because I wanted to keep learning and challenge my thinking. I launched a consulting firm that serves the senior living industry in the middle of the COVID pandemic when companies are probably not spending a ton of money on outside help. But I believe that the right companies are investing in new thinking, pivoting, and managing change in ways that they hadn't before.

Having grit, as Angela Duckworth might say, is the combination of passion and perseverance. Jobs don't hold passion - people do. Companies don't persevere - people do. As leaders in mission-driven organizations, we must understand our personal life philosophy in a way that we can articulate our passions.

Then, we must find other people whose passions complement the team's collective passions. This melting-pot of passions is what drives a group of people to pursuing a company's mission.

Sports metaphor ahead.

A professional basketball team may have business goals, but their executive team is likely far less passionate about the game of basketball than the players on the court.

  • Executives - run a successful and profitable business, which happens to be in sports.

  • Coaching Staff - win championships and be a good (life) coach to people.

  • Players - play the game you love.

Sure, it's way oversimplified, but here you can see clear potential for misalignment. A thriving basketball organization must navigate the alignment of goals carefully.

If it can get a little confusing or sticky with a professional sports team, imagine the quick sands and potential missteps for healthcare, childcare, senior living, or other mission-driven, service-oriented businesses.

Putting it All Together

Be gritty about your passion once you figure out what that actually is.

Be self-aware of your leadership actions. Your organization is what YOU repeatedly do.

Align the daily activities of your team to drive straight back to the core mission.

Analyze your results beyond profitability. Measure them against promise-keeping.

Here's to all the mission-driven leaders harnessing their passion to help whatever industry needs their help. Don't let your industry be the thing you're passionate about. Let your industry be uplifted by what you're passionate about.

Lead well! Live your legacy today!

- James Lee

James is the founder of Bear Wise Consulting and the host of Level Up: A Leadership Podcast.

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