Michael Dowling: Where are the role models?

Michael J. Dowling, President & CEO, Northwell Health – Tuesday, October 24th, 2023

It’s no secret that Americans are increasingly being exposed to rising levels of rudeness, hostility, a lack of civility and decency in our day-to-day lives.

So many of our so-called leaders contribute to the regression — headline-seeking politicians, narcissistic CEOs and media celebrities who daily promote bigotry, misinformation and conspiracy. They help to undermine the value of democracy, promote dysfunction and a decline of respectability. They undermine trust.

It is time to ask a simple question: Where are our positive role models?

We are confronted with a great paradox. The internet and the growing communication outlets — which we are constantly tethered to — offer the potential to amplify the influence of role models who promote the qualities and behaviors worth emulating. While there are some who try to be positive role models, their voices cannot be easily heard. They are drowned out by those whose louder and persistent voices engage in the blame-game, continually airing grievances, fostering cynicism, and creating a victim mentality. This undermines efforts at compromise, collaboration, and mutual respect — as we currently see in the dysfunction in Congress.

The result is deeply concerning. Our children and adolescents, who are most in need of positive role models, are receiving an accelerated education in distrust. It, of course, affects adults also. A dearth of such role models and the ongoing spotlight on poor behavior can negatively affect our cherished cultural norms, affect how we approach conflict resolution and even lower the standard we hold for ourselves. Taking the high road begins to feel like thankless work. Suddenly it becomes easier to not take it — to forget how to manage hardship with grace, dignity, integrity and compassion.

I have been the CEO of Northwell since 2002. To this day, I still recall moments in which public figures made a positive and lasting impression on me. One was the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who I worked directly with for almost 12 years. His decency, work ethic, sense of responsibility, desire to expose the best of us, articulate defense of democracy, and compassion for the needy was inspiring — and inspired a commitment to public service. There were others like him, and I know many still exist today. They need to find ways to have their voices heard and have the courage to do so.

Those of us privileged to hold leadership roles in healthcare have a special obligation and responsibility, especially now. We must not take the low road by emulating the pettiness, finger-pointing, egocentrism, and narcissism that we see in too many corners of public life. We take the high road by promoting the opposite — those values of honesty, respect, and decency, which highlight the best of us. Consider the following as a start.

1. Promote the importance of community. We are all interconnected and interdependent. We value each other’s viewpoints – we allow them to educate us.

2. Reframe compromise as a strength. It takes courage, adaptability, and cooperation. It facilitates progress. It is the essence of democracy.

3. Create a healthy and respectful work environment. As the largest employer in many of our communities, we must promote healthy behaviors that enhance overall well-being and engagement. At the same time, we must be explicit about having zero tolerance for words or actions that fostered discrimination or hate violence. We must respect and appreciate the benefits of diversity.

4. Give oxygen to hope. Practice optimism and positivity. Despite issues and problems that always exist, the future can and will be better. Hope inspires.