Leave the Binder at Home: A Discussion with John Kenagy, Legacy Health


Without confidence, we won’t have the courage to be decisive – and if leadership roles require anything, it is the ability to make decisions, lots of them.  However, this required confidence can lapse into unhelpful cockiness. We move from confident to cocky when we think we know the answers before the questions are asked. Because we have been around the block, and have seen lots of success and lots of failure, we have a well-defined management “playbook” in our minds. Whether we say it or not, we believe that if others simply embrace the brilliance of our playbook, the organization will quickly move to a better tomorrow.


John Kenagy is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Legacy Health, the largest nonprofit, locally-owned health system in Portland, Oregon.  John is a great guy with valuable insights on a number of topics. He and I had an interesting conversation this summer on various subjects, including the importance of leaders being confident but not cocky.

Without confidence, we won’t have the courage to be decisive – and if leadership roles require anything, it is the ability to make decisions, lots of them.  However, this required confidence can lapse into unhelpful cockiness. We move from confident to cocky when we think we know the answers before the questions are asked. Because we have been around the block, and have seen lots of success and lots of failure, we have a well-defined management “playbook” in our minds. Whether we say it or not, we believe that if others simply embrace the brilliance of our playbook, the organization will quickly move to a better tomorrow.  This dynamic is amplified if we are new to our role or our company. We are hungry to prove our value and worth, and impatient to implement the strategies and plans that we know work and get quick results.

John tells a great story from a job interview that he conducted that illustrates this dynamic well.  Halfway through the interview, the job candidate reached into his briefcase, pulled out a 3-ring binder, put it on John’s desk and said: “This is the methodology I have used in every job and every company in which I have worked over my career.”

John looked down at the binder, thought for a moment, and then asked a terrific question.  “Tell me how you’ve changed and updated your binder to reflect what you have learned from your past three jobs.”  You see where this is heading, don’t you? The guy looked back at him blankly. “I don’t understand the question – this is my methodology. It doesn’t change.” Unsurprisingly, John did not hire him.

We can laugh at this extreme example, but I believe that the more successful we have been in our careers, the more we can learn from this story. We all have a playbook in our minds. The corners are bent with use. The cover has visible drops of blood and sweat. We’ve built that binder over our entire careers and, by the way, look where it has gotten us. Of course we go back to our trusty playbook – it works!  Leaders are not paid for on-the-job training. They are paid for what they have accomplished and for what they know. And without this hard won experience in our past, we cannot chart a path forward and make the hard decisions that come with our jobs.

Yet it is easy for us to forget that plans that worked in the past are not always right in the present. No one’s “binder” is complete.  There are always things missing and things to learn. Most importantly, even if every page of our playbook is directly applicable to our current situation, our new team will reject our strategy, saying “that won’t work here,” unless they have had the opportunity to shape the strategy and its implementation. Only then will it become our strategy instead of just my strategy.

In other words, while we better be confident in our knowledge and experience, we must equally be humble enough to allow others on our team to tailor that strategy to fit current circumstances. It is the confident and humble leader who succeeds in galvanizing a new team to follow her direction. As John says:

“The best leadership fit is when both the organization and the individual are better for their time together.  When leaders look back on their time with an organization, they should be able to say they left the institution better off and that they are better leaders as a result of their tenure. It should be a two-way street.”

That’s the attitude we want. Confident enough to make tough decisions, humble enough to learn from others, and able to say that both our employers and we are better for our time together.

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