Dottie Deremo and Leading from Within

December 13, 2013

By: Jenny Simonson

I recently heard Dottie Deremo, CEO of Hospice of Michigan, speak on leadership, and her insights shifted my own perspective as a leader in business. According to Dottie, one big myth of leadership is “the higher you go, the more control you have.”

Shut the front door. What? I wrote my whole business school admissions essay around starting my own company after graduation so that I could have more control on the mission and trajectory of the company, and now you’re telling me that’s a myth?

Dottie explained that when you are the CEO, you have to serve a board and your customers. Everything that you have to do is through others, through your employees, so you actually lose an element of control.

Ok, now this makes more sense. Everyone in an organization has an obligation to someone else; no one is free to do as they please without accountability. But if we lose more control when we seemingly need it most, what can we do?

Dottie explains that leadership must first come within. Because you can control yourself. Because the higher up you go, people look at your actions and not your words. Or, as Gandhi said, “you must become the change you want to see in the world.”

Dottie’s advice resonates with me for several reasons. First, it just makes sense. When I think of leaders in my life – my mom, CEOs of companies I worked for, the President – it’s seeing their actions and behaviors that has created change in my life. Since your power as a leader is through other people, you need to influence their behaviors. Seeing powerful people act in meaningful ways has shaped the way that I want to act and how I want to live my life. It’s not my mom telling me to “be nice to others” that matters. It’s things like seeing her give hot chocolate and coffee to hard working construction workers on a bitter winter day that has transformed the way that I act.

Second, it brings a seemingly impossible task of controlling an entire organization back to a simple reality that you can only really ever control yourself. You can’t do everything, but you can control yourself.  That means that as I look to take on more leadership roles in my career, I can start preparing now. By clearly understanding the impact of my behaviors on my own life and the people around me, I can become a more purposeful leader now and continue to build on this in my future roles in an organization. Acting in a positive way today will actually help me as a leader in the future. Starting now, I am making small simple changes. For example, I am now scheduling time to exercise as if it were a doctor’s appointment. At the beginning of the school year, I frequently had intentions to exercise, but I’d somehow go through the entire day without a minute to spare for myself. Too quickly, my calendar fills up very quickly with class, homework, club meetings, and social events. Now, I use my google calendar to schedule exercise at the beginning of each week. For an extra measure of commitment, I signed up for a weekly zumba class and planned a morning run with a classmate. I hope that by taking control of my time now, I can begin to cultivate positive habits of making my own health a priority and can focus on taking charge of my own goals and priorities.

While this illusion of control initially jarred me, it’s actually a powerful realization. The only person we can really control is ourselves.