Wright Lassiter III: Leading health care through a pandemic
When Henry Ford Health System admitted its first COVID-19 patients on March 14, President and CEO Wright Lassiter III didn't imagine they'd have more than 900 patients hospitalized with the virus within just three weeks.
Leading the $6.5 billion organization and its 32,000 employees through the crisis required a mix of business acumen, flexibility, compassion and cool-headed determination.
"It was unlike anything the health care industry has faced before," Lassiter recalled in an interview with The Detroit News. "It was like a fire burning around every corner of your house."
In addition to its six hospitals, the health system founded by Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford includes a health plan and a wide range of ambulatory, retail and related services at more than 250 locations.
Running a massive health care organization wasn't a job Lassiter contemplated after graduating from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Instead, he enrolled in medical school.
Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, he moved with his parents to Maryland, upstate New York and then Texas as his father, the Rev. Wright Lowenstein Lassiter Jr., took a succession of jobs as a college president. Lassiter's mother was a nurse.
During a year-long sabbatical from medical school to do research, he talked to his father about whether he really wanted to become a doctor. The elder Lassiter arranged for his son to meet with experts in various fields to consider other career options, including the president and CEO of Dallas Methodist Health System.
A week after that conversation, Lassiter was offered a job helping doctors set up Methodists' first electronic medical records system. He had a choice to make, and his father advised, " 'Don't ever do something that your heart's not fully into, so if you're not sure, maybe you should explore this opportunity,'" Lassiter said. So in January of 1990, Lassiter started his first job in health care administration.
After Dallas Methodist, Lassiter worked at JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, Texas, and served as CEO of Alameda Health System in Oakland, California, before joining Henry Ford in 2014. He was named president and CEO in 2016.
As the pandemic raged in Detroit last spring, Lassiter said it was essential to empower people to make on-the-spot decisions, and to tell him what he needed to know — even if it wasn't what he wanted to hear.
"Oftentimes when you’re the CEO, people think I’ll just tell him or her what they want to hear," he said. "My view is no — I don’t have the luxury to see what you’re seeing, you’re closer to the ground than I am."
Employees were coping not only with the pandemic, but with social unrest that simultaneously unfolded across Detroit and the nation, Lassiter said. On June 5, health care workers across the country participated in demonstrations to call for heath equity and social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by Minneapolis Police.
When an employee asked if Henry Ford Hospital could join the "Friday Night of Reflection," Lassiter called for the entire health system to participate. The moving demonstrations across the health system were cathartic, as employees joined together to express their sadness, grief and other emotions.
"It was a time to reflect on who Henry Ford was, and what is important to us as an organization," Lassiter said. “(The pandemic) has caused us to ask ourselves the question of can we do more, and should our expectations of ourselves as an organization be higher.
"Of all the accolades we've gotten for our efforts, let's not let those accolades cause us to think the job is done."
Wright Lassiter III
Occupation: President and CEO, Henry Ford Health System
Education: Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, LeMoyne College, Syracuse, New York; Masters in Health Care Administration, Indiana University
Family: Married to Cathy for more than 20 years; one daughter
Why honored: For his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing determination to reduce health inequities in Detroit