4 Fundamental Vital Signs for Healthy Organizations

In Patrick Lencioni’s latest book The Advantage, he points out that in today’s competitive world a healthy organization is likely to be the greatest competitive advantage you can have.

He’s right. So what exactly does that look like?

An Unhealthy Organization

Well, let’s take a closer look at an unhealthy organization. To outsiders like Pat and me, three strong indicators are –

• A lack of trust leading to poor teamwork and alignment.
• A lack of clarity about mission, vision, and values.
• A fear of conflict. People are not allowed to say what they really think.

With these symptoms, you can predict a lack of accountability on team goals which results in sloppy execution, inadequate results, and ultimately, a poor reputation in your industry.

A Healthy Organization

However you, the smart business leader, want the best results and a great place to work (they typically go together), so let’s consider the four fundamentals that can achieve both goals.

4 Fundamental Vital Signs for Healthy Organizations 

1. Build Trust

“Trust is the hallmark of cohesive teams. Without it, people have doubts, fears, and uncertainty making alignment and unity impossible.”

Remember that we’re not talking about baseline trust such as “Do I trust you not to steal my wallet?” Trust in this context means that I understand and accept you because you’re willing to be vulnerable and genuine.

There are no hidden agendas, so I know you won’t take advantage of me if I’m not at the meeting with the boss. This kind of trust takes time, and leaders must go first with this virtue.

2. Clarify and Over-Communicate

“Leading a business means facing many crucial issues and decisions every day, but a good leader has the ability to synthesize large amounts of information into something simple.”

Too often leaders assume that their staff see and understand what they do, and this causes many problems with execution. Imagine the quarterback having a complex play in mind, yet he only calls a short version of it in the huddle. Ten teammates must execute precisely to make the next play a success; but if they don’t have the same picture as the quarterback, mistakes will likely result in a setback.

It’s the same in business. Leaders have to continually clarify and over-communicate the message all the way to the bottom of the organization to make sure the team understands what plays the leader is calling.

3. Create a Safe Environment and Encourage Debate

“In healthy organizations there’s an absence of fear, and courage is rewarded.”

Do your people have to walk on eggshells, or do they feel safe with you? Can they disagree with you and have a fair hearing, or do your reactions equate disagreement with disloyalty? Healthy leaders invite creative conflict prior to making key decisions to get team buy in and to make sure that other reasonable ideas are evaluated.

They’re more interested in being effective than being “right.” One of the greatest desires of all people is to be understood, so show courage by listening and learning from your people. Your courage, vulnerability, and authenticity will be seen as strengths.

4. Be Courageous

“Leading isn’t easy. Every day you face tough issues, and your people are watching to see if you will walk the talk of your stated values.”

It will take all the courage you have and the support of your team and confidants to consistently lead with honor. Lean into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right, and you will send a message of healthy courage throughout your organization. Remember that positive emotions are contagious and powerful, and leaders go first.

So, what fundamentals need more work in your organization and/or leadership? Which ones are you doing well, and how did you implement some or all of these fundamentals in your culture? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | Book | Facebook | Twitter

His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

Image Sources: insights.jpmorgan.co.uk

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Lennart Thornros on May 7, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I do not disagree with you. However, this is the diagnosis. Why and how to fix it is more important to me. I do have solutions but they also need a book. The first question to ask next is How many people can we handle as a good leader. I mean handle directly. Next Q is:how many of those can you expect to be as good leaders or better? Ask those Q a few times and the size of the organization will be defined. It seems easy first (most things in life does) but behind the word expect a big investigation is hiding. When I get the time to write a book I will tell about that also. As they say size is not all that important.

    • Lee Ellis on May 7, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Lennart – thanks for your comments. Methods and experiential practice for correcting these issues are certainly an important step. Lee has addressed them and more in his book, Leading with Honor, in which he shares practical leadership lessons learned as a Vietnam POW for over five years. Go to http://www.LeadingWithHonor.com for more information. (WP Admin)

      • Lennart Thornros on May 7, 2014 at 2:30 pm

        Yes, I agree on a leadership development basis that is correct.
        I am saying that ANY organization has a size limit and that it is important to find the limit and adjust the organization accordingly. I did respond that as you are addressing the issue of,”Fundamental Vital Signs for Healthy Organizations”.
        I am not a dealing with the development of leaders in my comment. I am dealing with how to optimize the organization depending on the leadership you have and can have. I might give you an example; If I lead people which are planting tulips by hand and the people have normal / average social and other skills I can handle more people than if the workers are convicts or if they are sitting in a customer service department answering customer inquiries. In addition my own capacity for handling other sub-leaders (not a good label but . . .) and , which other functions are required as the ‘group’ expands will also impact the limitation of an organization. You might think that what I say is so basic it does not have to be addressed. Reality is that this aspect is left out when discussing leadership. Leadership is not equal to leadership all the time.
        I have no objection to the reality of certain situations and how that makes us understand certain critical leadership skills. However, each organization requires its leaders or it has a defined limit.

        • Lee Ellis on May 7, 2014 at 5:21 pm

          Good comments, Lennart – scalability and team roles are certainly practical necessities when considering organizational health. (WP Admin)

  2. edlhansen51 on May 7, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    This is an excellent article and the four vital signs resonate with me as a leader. From personal experience, the concept of promoting debate and encouraging people to speak up is one that I have seen a number of young leaders struggle with. Knowing how to effectively promote debate and the “questioning of authority” comes from experience and learning (often from trial and error). Leaders must be sensitive to the notion that “familiarity breeds contempt”. A leader (particularly a formal leader, can not abrogate his or her responsibility to lead. Contempt manifests itself in a number of way. Appearing too willing to be criticized and questioned or too interested in seeking input before making a decision can be seen by people around you as weakness – however wrong. People may see too much solicitation or acceptance of input as the inability to act as the leader they expect and want. Perception is a sword that cuts two ways. I am not suggesting that any developing leader should not be approachable, seek input, encourage dialog and debate or create an environment free of ear. Rather, I suggest that efforts to lead in this way be effected in “bite-sized” and manageable stages. Good leadership is controlled and informed leadership. Action and Reaction to each initiative must be closely monitored.

    This goes to the point of positive “over-communication”. Tell people the kind of leader you intend to be so that they understand your actions. Then, tell them again while you are acting on your commitment. This informs them and keeps you focused on your intention. After the fact, when you have reviewed the consequences of your leadership approach, again tell people why you acted as you did and the resulting implications you are left with. Then the stage is set for your next evolution. Incidentally, managing the evolution of your “leader”-self like this takes courage. Regards, Ed

    • Lee Ellis on May 8, 2014 at 9:15 am

      Ed – great comments. You’re right–it is an evolutionary process to create an atmosphere of trust, over-communication, and healthy debate; but it’s worth the effort for those leaders that want to go there.

  3. ramakrishnan6002 on May 8, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

  4. Dr. Scott Simmerman on May 8, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I am just back from ASTD, where I met with two long-time customers of my team building programs. Shingo in Japan is conducting Hero Quest kinds of programs and his main concepts are very congruent with your bullet points for success; he emphasizes courage. David from Hong Kong focuses on the teaming aspects and the trust and alignment issues.

    My latest thinking bumps up against what I think (and people are tending to agree) about the reality of supervision. If you read all the bullets, they all require that SUPERVISORS be the lead people on the alignment and communication, but it also seems as if most are pretty roadblocked and do not have many opportunities to actually meet with their people, implement team-based innovative solutions to workplace issues, or that they need to have a high risk-tolerance to accomplish these things in so many organizational cultures.

    DOING something differently within an organization requires courage, since failure is a component of change. Do we allow supervisors to fail successfully as a general rule. And do we not stuff their jobs with tasks and reports and meetings and worker schedules that preclude them spending much time on “people and performance?”

    I expand on these ideas a little here:


    and would LOVE to see any data about these issues.


    • Lee Ellis on May 8, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Thanks for sharing, Scott. I’ve been in Singapore in the last few weeks, and my contacts there are stressing the same need for these principles. In one particular case, the senior leaders are retiring and they want to prepare next generation leaders to lead the organization with character, courage, and competency.

      • Dr. Scott Simmerman on May 8, 2014 at 11:19 am

        I met with consultants in HK and Tokyo and there is a HUGE difference that is making itself seen, In Japan, they can still sell a 3-day personal development program built around the themes of teamwork and leadership. There is a strong commitment to building CULTURE in the multinationals there, a far cry from what we are seeing in the US.

        Interesting ramifications for the future. The Chinese companies seem to just be continuing to do what they have been doing…

  5. Ann Schlueter on May 8, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Solid list. I have found most of these challenges can be overcome by better/regular/consistent communication–people will eventually bring up concerns if they have an avenue to express them. Also, author Steven Gaffney recommends action to mitigate the risk of leaders not being challenged by their team members: choose team members who aren’t like you and bring a different skill set. Tough to do, but good leaders aspire to have this model in place.

  6. hardcorpsleader on May 8, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Reblogged this on Hard Corps Leadership Training.