Newsroom Lessons learned from a life of leadership - Steve Edwards reflects Posted by Randy Berger on May 27, 2022 President and CEO Steve Edwards spent his last day on duty Friday working with the Grounds Crew on our campuses. They worked on landscaping, cleanup and replacing our flags for Memorial Day.In the final days before his retirement, President and CEO Steve Edwards says he is reminded of the way he felt at his college graduation: a great experience is coming to an end and there is an exciting future ahead.The last month has been a series of farewells, with hallway handshakes and hugs, and regular meetings turning sentimental as Edwards attends each for the last time as CEO.Back in his office, he has a collection of things people have dropped off for him. On his desk, a set of fishing flies tied by his junior high football coach is surrounded by letters from former classmates and community members.“I have been getting two or three nice messages each day,” he says. “You don’t feel deserving, but it is so sweet.”We sat down with him this week for a look back at what he has learned from a career of service and leadership. Here is what he had to say:How has serving as CEO changed you?Experience gives you perspective, and my perspective has grown more grounded. Things that might have seemed like a crisis early in my career, I now realize were manageable bumps in the road.I am also more of my true self. Early in my career, I was so aware that people were watching that I wasn’t always my authentic self. There are imperfections in your authentic self, but those imperfections are what make us unique people.These imperfections also include making mistakes, which make us human. If you talk about your mistakes, people will appreciate the sincerity. People trust you more when they see you are not perfect, and I believe too few leaders are comfortable acknowledging that they make mistakes.Lastly, it has helped me understand the value of transparency. If you can’t be transparent about who you are, you can’t be a transparent leader, and you can’t be a transparent organization. I grew over 30 years to be more true to who I am.What has holding this position taught you about leadership?You have to be focused on doing the best job, not on keeping your job. Some people make errors by trying not to do something that could upset stakeholders. Even if they knew something is the right thing to do, they might avoid doing it because they want to protect their job.I give my dad credit for teaching me to live below your means and build a safety net. Particularly in the pandemic, having that safety net gave me the courage to say some things that not everyone liked to hear, things I felt had to be said and knew to be true. I was fortunate to have the support of the board and those around me, but that perspective gave me courage.What is something you wish you had learned or known earlier in your career?Knowing how very important it is to have the right person in the right spot. The team surrounding us in the last two or three years, in almost every position, is the best we have ever had. That has made my job a lot easier, knowing that they will come up with plans and solutions if we let them have the autonomy.That is one of the important lessons: Don’t wait too long if you need to make a tough decision about a person, and you must always do it in a way that is kind. As the CEO, your loyalty has to run greater to the organization as a whole than to any one individual. That loyalty competes with your sense of loyalty to individuals, and that is why the job can be tough.What is the most important thing a leader can take away from your experience?You have to be a great facilitator. Time and time again, I have been in a room with people and we had a challenge or problem and no one of us had an answer, but together we could find it.You need to make sure people are challenging you. And, you need to be prepared to listen four or five times more than you talk.At the beginning of your tenure, you pledged to move with urgency. Looking back, how has that approach served us?In the pandemic, speed and urgency were magnified. Every moment seemed to matter and we could learn something. We were prepared to act in ways that others couldn’t.Urgency is important in health care. From door-to-balloon times to how quickly you can get vaccines into people’s arms, speed saves lives. A culture that relies on speed will be more competitive and serve its community better.What has been the most unexpectedly rewarding part of the role?Part of the job should be to help people grow. You want to give them resources and responsibility. You want to encourage them, maybe even inspire them, if you can. People look up to the position more than the person. Within the position, there is a task and there is a role. You have to do both, you can’t neglect either.I recently got a note from someone who has done great in their career and they thanked me for talking them into going to college. That is really rewarding.I see leaders fail because they only do the task of the position they are in and forget there is symbolism in the role. To meet with a student isn’t a task a leader should feel they need to do, but it is a role to influence and to know that you are helping to grow the next generation.The things in the job that sometimes seemed the least important are now the ones that I feel the greatest reward from.What did you learn from this that will affect your next phase of life?When I was 23, I made a plan to retire at 55. As I got closer to that age, I started to wrestle with the decision. Is it right to retire? Do I deserve it? If I can contribute more and make a difference, shouldn’t I? You have a sense of guilt.The pandemic resolved those worries. We all gave so much. I think about the difference between giving and sacrificing. Sacrificing leaves scars and it doesn’t make you stronger. Giving makes you stronger. In the pandemic, a lot of people began to sacrifice and we will see scars from those sacrifices.The pandemic also gives you perspective: You treasure life even more. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis reminds you of that, too.I am looking forward to savoring simple things, and cherishing moments with my family. Every moment with them is a treasure.I think people don’t always appreciate things or have gratitude. Almost every meal I have ever eaten has been afforded to me by CoxHealth. The roof over my head, my education. My dad started at Cox before I was born. Every meal was afforded to me by his work at Cox. And CoxHealth has done the same for my kids. I don’t know how you repay that. You feel blessed. I owe this organization a lot, more than I could ever repay.