Editor’s Take: Senior Living Lessons from ‘Hamilton’

Driving to spend the Fourth of July weekend with some friends in Michigan, the choice of music for the four-hour road trip was obvious: The cast recording of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.”

The idea was to get in the patriotic mood by listening to the hip-hop retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life story. But one song actually got me thinking about senior housing, and asking myself a specific question: Are there some lessons that senior housing leaders should be taking from the show—and in particular its portrayal of George Washington?

Bear with me.

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The revolution that gave rise to private-pay senior living did not occur all that long ago, and many of the industry’s founding fathers and mothers—let’s call them “founding figures”—still are active today. Just recently, Emeritus co-founder Dan Baty was back in the headlines, as his current firm scooped up a 79-property portfolio. Scrolling through our Leadership Series interviews reveals so many other industry pioneers still blazing trails. John Rijos, Brenda Bacon, and Loren Shook, to name just a few.

I’m lucky to have met many of these people and reported on their companies in the five years that I’ve been in senior housing journalism. Based on what I’ve learned, I think you could make a case for many of these people being courageous, or visionary leaders, or world-class team-builders, all traits that George Washington certainly had, as showcased in “Hamilton.”

However, I have not reported on any senior living founding figure doing one thing that helped define Washington’s legacy: Say “goodbye.”

That is, I can’t think of any notable stories in the last few years about a long-serving senior living founder or CEO voluntarily stepping down and turning the company over smoothly to someone else’s leadership, without an M&A transaction precipitating the change. At least, that’s the case on the provider side; Bob Kramer just did this very thing at NIC.

Meanwhile, though, I’ve heard a lot of concern about a lack of succession planning in senior living C-suites, even as CEOs approach retirement.

Spoiler alert: There’s a scene in “Hamilton” in which Washington sings and raps about why he is stepping down as President of the United States after just two terms, explaining his decision to a perplexed Alexander Hamilton in the song “One Last Time.”

“If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on, it outlives me when I’m gone,” Washington says. In the song’s chorus, he sings that wants to “teach them how to say goodbye.”

So, how did Washington say goodbye, and what can senior housing leaders learn from him on this topic?

1. Don’t get too hung up on who comes after you. 

Despite his numerous accomplishments, it’s safe to say that John Adams was no George Washington. In “Hamilton,” when Britain’s King George learns that John Adams will follow Washington in the presidency, he says: “That’s the little guy who spoke to me all those years ago … That poor man, they’re gonna eat him alive!”

What Washington recognized was that the United States could survive—needed to be able to survive—no matter who was president. He did not wait around to find and prepare and gracefully hand the reins to a “perfect” successor.

I sometimes wonder if senior housing leaders are guilty of being too jittery about passing the torch. Usually, the thought occurs to me when I’m reporting on a younger president or COO leaving a company that is helmed by a veteran CEO. I’ve been writing these stories pretty frequently.

If there is a “culture fit mismatch,” or the CEO and his or her top lieutenant have “divergent visions,” I understand why parting ways might be the best move. But I also wonder if these somewhat vague explanations that are offered in press releases are shorthand for complex factors, which might include, at least in part, a CEO feeling some qualms once a potential successor is in the wings.

I know I’m speculating here on situations that I don’t have first-hand knowledge of; I also don’t mean to cast aspersions on well-respected CEOs, or to put former presidents or COOs in the “lesser” John Adams role. My point is simply that if concerns about a successor are, on some level, holding back leadership handovers in senior living, the lesson from “Hamilton” is: Get over it.

The “second president” of a senior living company might be brilliant or a dud, but either way, the very act of passing the torch will prove the strength of the enterprise and perhaps benefit the whole industry.

2. Don’t wait too long. 

If it sounds like I’m advocating for a distinguished senior living leader to step aside while still firing on all cylinders, I say, exactly. This is another lesson from George Washington.

In a time when monarchs served for life, eight years as president must have seemed like a shockingly short tenure—in “Hamilton,” it shocks both Hamilton and King George when Washington chooses to step down.

To continue my wild speculation: When we report on younger executives leaving a well-established company to start their own venture in the industry, or to be the CEO of a smaller operation, that’s when I tend to wonder whether veteran senior living leaders are hanging around too long.

There are plentiful caveats. Not all these younger executives were necessarily in line to ascend to CEO. Also, I do believe there are natural-born entrepreneurs, and the sector is in need of new operators, so it makes sense that some people are taking the plunge and launching their own enterprises. And if a CEO position happens to open up, it also makes sense to me that a someone would seize that opportunity.

My point here is just that long-standing CEOs should be wary of losing motivated young talent, and there’s a case to be made for succession to happen at a faster pace than a veteran leader might see as reasonable. The Washington model for saying goodbye is to bid adieu after a reasonable but not overly long stint in command.

3. Just do it.

The biggest lesson that Washington imparts to the concerned Hamilton is the obvious one. It’s simply, do it. Say goodbye.

That alone can be a tough message for some executive types to hear—I’m sure we all know some high-achievers who say they want to “die with their boots on.” That can seem like a praiseworthy goal—the phrase probably comes from the idea of soldiers dying in battle, which of course is seen as an honorable way of going.

But, keep in mind that Washington himself was a fighting man par excellence, yet he felt no shame in taking his boots off; he sings to Hamilton, “I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree, a moment alone in the shade, at home in this nation we’ve made.”

It’s a particular irony if leaders of senior housing companies, having dedicated their professional lives to creating settings where older adults can flourish, unduly resist their own time under a metaphorical vine and fig tree.

Written by Tim Mullaney

Photo Credit: Lin-Manuel Miranda portraying “Hamilton” on stage in 2016, by Nathan Hughes Hamilton, CC BY 2.0

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