Blount Memorial Hospital administrator Joe Dawson, who will receive the Leadership Blount Leadership Award on Friday, says he is really more of a salesman than a hand-down-the-decision leader.
Good leadership, Dawson explains, isn’t so much making the right decisions as it is being able to convince others to agree with your decisions.
“What I try to tell my staff is that making the right decision is the easy part of my job. The hardest part, and the more important part, is getting other people to agree with us,” he said.
Dawson will be honored with the Leadership Blount 10th Annual Leadership Award on Friday morning, April 3, at First United Methodist Church of Maryville. The hospital administrator, who was in the inaugural Leadership Blount class, says he was surprised when told of the honor.
“You don’t think about getting an award for things you normally do,” he said. “A lot of things I do in the community I see as part of my responsibility in this job. The hospital is owned by everybody in Blount County, so what we do needs to be done with everybody in mind.”
Dawson said the only good decision is one in which the leader is able to successfully convince others to follow.
“Ten percent is making a decision, and 90 percent is selling that decision, getting others to buy in. Only then will it work,” he said. “I think one of the things I focus on is informing people and the community and getting other people invested in the decision. I’m good at building consensus and buy in. Part of my leadership style is engaging others and getting everybody focused in the same direction.”
Dawson said he learned this lesson over time. “When I observed others who were good at what they did, it was a skill they had,” he said. “The smartest people aren’t always the most successful. The most successful are the ones who can get others to agree with them and support them. I met lots of people smarter than I am but who weren’t good at doing that.”
Dawson said when he became administrator, he felt the hospital was not taking advantage of all the opportunities to be a good corporate citizen.
“We typically had not shared our resources in the community so well - focusing on ourselves and things we needed to do -- and we didn’t necessarily think about things this hospital and staff needed to be doing in the community,” he said.
The hospital administrator said he felt one of his responsibilities to Blount Memorial was to build relationships in the community and with people and organizations in the community.
“I want the hospital to have friends in the community, and I knew a way to do that was not to just run a really good hospital but to become part of the fabric of the community and become involved in as many things as I could,” he said. “I started to look for things to become involved in like Red Cross and United Way and, over time, began encouraging others in the organization to do the same. Now we have lots of people involved in the community.”
Dawson said he has enjoyed seeing more employees and staff from the hospital become Leadership Blount class members. When Leadership Blount first started, he and other employees would always nominate someone in the hospital to be in the next class because they wanted someone from the hospital in every class.
“Then we started seeing people selected to be in the class we didn’t nominate who were employees in the hospital. They were being nominated by others in the community,” he said.
Dawson said he quickly realized this was a good thing because people working at the hospital were doing things in the community and were having such a positive impact others outside of the hospital were nominating hospital employees and staff to be in Leadership Blount.
“That says a whole lot about the quality of our people and their value in the community,” he said.
Leadership Blount’s role
When Dawson’s boss, then hospital board chair and surgeon Dr. Jim Proffitt, asked Dawson to be part of the first Leadership Blount County, Dawson initially balked because he was a Blount County native, was involved in the community and didn’t think he would benefit from the classes.
When he learned that Proffitt was also going to be in the class, Dawson said felt pressure to join.
“I thought, if my boss is in the class, I better be. When I showed up for our first class gathering, he wasn’t there. I called him the next day. He said, ‘I thought about what you said. I decided there wasn’t anything I could learn.’ We were both wrong,” Dawson said. “What I found out and shared with him was what a wonderful opportunity it was to meet other people and learn many, many things about the community I didn’t know. I really I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.”
Dawson said if anything has surprised him about Leadership Blount, it is how well it has accomplished its goal of developing leaders in the community. “What I have noticed is how many people have gone through Leadership Blount and then you begin to see them get involved in other community activities where previously they weren’t involved,” he said. “They’re in elected positions and volunteer opportunities. It has identified and encouraged a lot of people to get involved in this community, and I think that has helped a community that is already pretty strong in quality of leadership.”
The hospital administrator said something else that has impressed him about Leadership Blount is how it continues to get better.
“I thought when it started that it may or may not be something that survived,” he said. “It has had good leadership all along and each year has gotten better than the year before.”
Dawson said each class has become more involved and the projects they’ve taken on continue to have even more impact in the community.
“Rather than get stopped or run out, it’s like a rock thrown into a pond. It sinks, but it creates these ripples that continue to go. It has really done that. Its impact has grown every year. It has not only accomplished its original goal, its impact gets greater and broader every year.”
Maryville born, raised
Dawson was born in Maryville, went all the way through the city school system and then earned a degree at Maryville College. While at Maryville College he worked as an orderly at Blount Memorial Hospital and realized that while his father and brother were physicians, he didn’t want to become one. That’s when he met the hospital administrator at the time, Frank Meisamer.
“I wanted to do something in hospitals where I could do important things and help those who take care of patients,” he said. “I got curious about who this guy was, the administrator of the hospital. That’s when I got interested in hospital management.”
After Maryville College, he then did a stint in the army and went on to graduate school at the Medical College of Virginia. Dawson then took a job at a hospital in Richmond, Va., and was there a while with his wife and family when Meisamer called and offered him a job to return to Maryville.
“I had a bigger job at bigger hospital in Richmond when he called and offered me a job here. I came to visit with him. I had a hard time deciding. I liked where I was. My wife and I were enjoying Richmond. We got to thinking this may be the only chance to come home,” he said.
Dawson returned to Blount Memorial in 1977 as Meisamer’s assistant and worked in that position seven years before the board hired him on as administrator when Meisamer retired.
“It worked out the way I hoped it might,” he said.
Dawson said he got his work ethic from his dad, William “Bill” Dawson Sr., a physician who came to the area with the state health department, took part time work as medical director with Alcoa, Inc., during World War II and eventually became medical director for the entire company in Pittsburgh.
“He worked all the time. He was a good person and really cared about his patients, worked all day and was on call at night,” Dawson said. “He got called out a lot at night to go see an employee who got hurt or had their hand smashed.”
Dawson’s mother, Mary Frances Dawson, was a homemaker. “I always felt loved and always felt that support that whatever I was going to do was ok,” he said. “It was a good foundation. I didn’t have anything to worry about.”
Willing to take risks
Dawson said something else that has helped him be a leaders is he has always been willing to try different things.
“I’ve always been interested in trying things out to see whether they work so I don’t mind making mistakes or making wrong decisions,” he said. “We may hit a home run, but if it doesn’t work out, you learn an awful lot from making mistakes, so never bothers me. Fortunately, most things have worked.”
The hospital administrator said what he enjoys most is seeing people who work for him be successful.
“I really don’t do anything. I just make sure other people are doing things. It really is neat to see people who work for you be successful and grow and evolve and become good leaders,” he said.
Dawson said there is a lot of talent at the hospital and that has helped him be successful. Seeing others come into the organization and grow and evolve into leaders is satisfying.
“I used to think I had to do everything, and I about killed myself. If I delegate, we can do thousands of more things well,” he said. “That’s the nice thing about it. Even though I work hard, I don’t work as hard as I used to because there are so many people doing a good job, and that makes my job easier.”
Dawson and his wife, Sue, have been married 39 years. They have two children, David Dawson and Caroline Dawson. David is married to Jennifer Dawson, and the couple have a daughter, Savannah.
Joe Dawson said his granddaughter was named after where David and Jennifer got engaged, Savannah, Ga.
“I tell him, ‘It’s a good thing Sue and I didn’t do that - you’d be named Walland.’”