Virtue Based Leadership (PODCAST)

Dr. James Stoller on creating a culture and common language


Trust, compassion and justice are the “foundational virtues” of leadership, says James Stoller, MD, Chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Education Institute. “Absent those, it’s very difficult to have hope or wisdom, or even courage, for that matter,” he says.

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Dr. Stoller recently spoke to Brian Bolwell, MD, for the podcast “Beyond Leadership: At the Intersection of Leadership and Everything Else.”

“I’ve learned empirically that I’d like to be thought of, at the end of my tenure, as someone who tried to create a culture that created that opportunity for people to bring their best ideas forward,” he told Dr. Bolwell. “The external metrics that we enjoy in the Education Institute [tell us that] we’re in the 97th percentile on engagement and national norms, which I hope is some biomarker, if you will, of having created that kind of culture.”

Dr. Stoller holds the Jean Wall Bennett Professorship in Emphysema Research at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine and the Samson Global Leadership Academy Endowed Chair. He earned his Master of Science in Organizational Behavior at Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and is an adjunct professor there.  

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Podcast excerpt

Dr. Bolwell: Everyone would agree that creating [a culture of ideas] is a major goal and a wonderful aspiration. How do you do it?

Dr. Stoller: Well, I think the first thing you do is create a common language around the values that you hold. So, you give voice to these principles as explicit design elements. Culture is like a garden, Brian. It’s going to grow one way or the other. It’s going to grow as a bunch of weeds in a very unattractive way, or it can grow as a fine English garden. Growing in the latter way requires sort of explicit design. So, one of the things we did very, very early on . . . was to create a credo that we co-created. I remember going through about nine iterations of this document with colleagues, and we wrote it about our common values, respect for persons, harvesting wisdom, that sort of thing.

That language was then emblazoned. We made a big giant poster that we all signed, and it’s framed in the hallway today. It’s sort of part of the furniture now. But in fact it was a very early effort to be explicit about the kind of culture that we collectively wanted to design and live in. I think that being mindful about the culture and then modeling those behaviors on an everyday basis in order to maintain trust and garner trust, trust is one of those things, as you all know, it’s gained in drops and lost in buckets. So, demonstrating these values on a continuous basis is part of how to cultivate that garden.