Words to Lead By

By: Robert J. Corona, DO, MBA, CEO, Upstate University Hospital

What makes us seek words of wisdom? For years I’ve jotted down quotes that inspire me from all sorts of sources. Some have become part of my regular conversation; others have made their way into the way I frame my approach to work and life.

In one of my first presentations as hospital CEO, I featured the quote often used by Bréne Brown who wrote Dare to Lead. In it she advocates an approach to bring a “strong back, soft front, and a wild heart” to our work. I thought it was particularly resonant for a hospital environment and it used six strong words for what otherwise could have taken a much longer time to convey.  After that talk, I heard from more than one person how much they liked that quote and immediately understood what it meant.

Research shows that people are attracted to succinct descriptions, especially if they have a rhythm or cadence. In addition to making a point more memorable, other reasons the right quote can work: it provides an additional boost of wisdom from people who have achieved or gone before. Those sources can bring authority, reassurance or insights on a topic. For me, the right quote crystallizes my wider ranging thoughts.

While not everyone is drawn to personal mantras, in my leadership roles I’ve noticed most people have at least one. Those can become a shorthand to how someone will approach a problem or how they treat others. More than once I’ve heard colleagues cite, “the obstacle is the way” (shortened from the statement from the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said,

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”) We can infer that they see the obstacle in a more nuanced form — and even something to learn from — than simply a barrier to push aside.

In addition to condensing a call to action or signaling intention, the right words can have motivating power. Early in the pandemic, handmade signs with encouraging messages started popping up in the hospital to lift the spirits of our front-line workers. Our President at Upstate started an online place for people to share their favorite quotes, and suggestions poured in. It provided needed place to share words of comfort and resilience. Those statements — some tried and true, others newly minted from the employees themselves — provided assurance that others had passed through challenges, and emerged.

As much as I enjoy them, I use quotes selectively, bringing out only one or two at a time as they fit the circumstances. Overuse can make great thoughts seem trite, and they should amplify not replace your own reflections. Over the years, my personal collection of favorite quotes includes these gems, each of which provides some great advice, should we take it.

  • Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.—Eleanor Roosevelt


  • Be the person who leaves a mark, not a scar. — Unknown


  • The person stating ‘it cannot be done’ shouldn’t interrupt the person doing it. — Unknown

On the wall of my office, this quote by author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes is literally part of the wallpaper: Once the mind is expanded by imagination, it never reverts back to its original dimension. A daily reminder that it is so important that we stretch our minds, and keep growing.

Robert J. Corona DO, MBA, is CEO of Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, NY.  Previous roles at Upstate include Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Dean for Industry and Academic Relations, and the endowed chair for the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He also served for many years as chief medical officer and vice president of Medical and Scientific Affairs at Welch Allyn Inc.