Christian Leon Of Equality Health: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy drives engagement. Recognizing individual contributions not only boosts morale, but fosters a culture where every team member feels valued and motivated to leverage their gifts and be creative.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Leon.

Christian Leon serves as Arizona Market President for Value-Based Care leader, Equality Health. With over a decade of experience in the healthcare and medical practice industry, he is a seasoned professional. His expertise lies in operations management, media management, strategic planning, value-based agreements, contract negotiations, and scaling. He is deeply committed to bridging the gap between providers and the necessary services and support, facilitating their transition to value-based care. Originating from Mexico, Christian relocated to Arizona at age 18. He is an active member of the YPO Pacific West Region and holds a Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration from Grand Canyon University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of my first jobs was at American-Spanish TV network, Univision, where the president asked me for my take on what the company represented. This question ignited a profound realization of the critical support immigrants require to assimilate into a new culture. I described Univision as a navigational beacon for the Latino community, guiding people through unfamiliar territory from securing their first jobs to opening a bank account and accessing healthcare. I knew from my own journey the importance of having culturally relevant resources to guide me on my way, and I decided then I wanted to provide that same help to others, especially in accessing healthcare.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Equality Health is a value-based care (VBC) enabler, and we help independent primary care practices, particularly those that serve Medicaid recipients in historically underserved communities, to survive and thrive by making the transition from the traditional fee-for-service model to VBC. VBC rewards health outcomes and population health as opposed to simply reimbursing providers for services delivered. Its goal is to improve health outcomes while saving money and it is a powerful antidote to the health inequities in America.

But making the transition to VBC is difficult for independent practices, which lack the technology and resources to adapt to the new payment models, proactive clinical workflows and VBC administrative burden.

Equality Health offers technology and people support that enables these practices to easily make the important shift. A strong example is a small Arizona practice that joined the Equality Health network and not only survived but thrived, expanding from three to 14 locations and broadening its healthcare offerings from pediatrics to primary care targeting young adults.

This example typifies how Equality Health empowers local independent practices to successfully navigate the complexities of VBC, enhancing service delivery to our communities, while driving systemic changes in the U.S. health system.

I am proud of the work we are doing at Equality Health — changing healthcare is hard work, but it’s thrilling to see the progress.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Empathy is first. Like many businesses, Equality Health faced unprecedented challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, as did our PCP partners. Empathy allowed us to understand the evolving needs of our team, PCPs and patient members. That ties into the second characteristic, resilience. Rather than withdraw or stand still, we shifted our operations to remote work and accelerated our telehealth services to enable our PCP partners to continue delivering care to those in their communities, as well as stay afloat as a practice. Visionary thinking, the third trait, guided us to not only navigate the crisis but also to innovate, ensuring we emerged stronger and more connected with our communities. This period underscored the importance of these traits in overcoming adversity and leading with purpose.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

During my tenure managing a pediatric practice, we were confronted with a critical decision amidst a financial downturn: cease operations or lay off half of our staff, a common recourse among many businesses at the time. Going against the grain, we remained operational, ensuring our employees were fully compensated despite a 50% drop in visits. This decision not only reflected our resilience and dedication to our team and patients but also led to innovative approaches, such as initiating Covid-19 testing and introducing an uninsured care program. This strategy resulted in a remarkable tripling of our membership during that year.

Can you share a personal experience when showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

A standout story was in my healthcare career when I was working at a pediatric practice and a mother, who was visibly distressed in our clinic’s lobby, needed fever medication for her child — medicine which was available both over the counter and by prescription. However, she was on Medicaid and her financial constraints meant she couldn’t afford it. Recalling my own upbringing by a single mom who often struggled to afford over-the-counter medication for me and my sister, I felt compelled to act. I discussed with the healthcare provider the importance of compassionate care over cost assumptions, noting that withholding medication could lead to more severe health outcomes, potentially resulting in an ED visit or hospitalization. This experience reinforced the essential role of empathy in healthcare, ensuring we prioritize patient welfare above all.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Leading with empathy, I’ve navigated the balance between understanding my team’s concerns and making tough calls. By being transparent and sharing the “why” behind decisions, helps ensure everyone feels valued and understood, even when the choices are hard. This approach builds trust and keeps us united around our common goals.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

In leadership, empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others, enabling leaders to connect on a deeper level and respond effectively. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling compassion for someone, but from a distance. In healthcare leadership, especially at an organization focused on eradicating health inequities, distinguishing between the two is crucial.

Empathy allows leaders to genuinely understand the challenges and needs of both patients and staff, leading to more compassionate care, effective proactive clinical workflows, and improved health outcomes. Meeting patients where they are requires empathy and getting directly involved to address the needs of individuals and communities is crucial to effect the change needed in our health system. So, in short, empathy includes direct involvement and sympathy offers compassion, but from a distance.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

A: Leaders can enhance their empathetic skills through active listening and genuinely engaging in conversations to deeply understand perspectives. Regularly practicing reflective listening is important too — where one mirrors back the speaker’s message for clarification, ensures accurate comprehension and validation of their feelings. Additionally, promoting a culture of open, honest communication within teams encourages empathy by recognizing and appreciating diverse viewpoints. These strategies, particularly in healthcare, can lead to more compassionate care and a supportive work environment, ultimately improving patient outcomes and staff well-being.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy in leadership is pivotal for embracing diversity, as it enables an authentic understanding of each team member’s unique experiences and challenges. This understanding fosters an inclusive culture where every voice is heard and valued, promoting a sense of belonging. But even more, in an inclusive environment team members are empowered to be creative, innovate and contribute in amazing new ways to the greater cause and at new levels of involvement. Empathetic leadership recognizes the richness that diversity brings to our healthcare mission and leveraging it to meet the wide-ranging needs of those we serve, ensuring that our approaches are as varied and nuanced as the people and communities we serve.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

In succession planning, it’s important to prioritize leadership development at every level, identifying and nurturing potential leaders throughout an organization. This inclusive approach, combined with a hiring practice based on potential and supporting individuals’ growth and education, creates a culture of trust, communication, and innovation.

Empathy plays a pivotal role in this process, especially in healthcare and VBC, enhancing team dynamics and patient care by building deep trust, fostering open communication, driving engagement, encouraging innovation, and strengthening relationships. Together, these strategies enhance our healthcare mission, reflecting a commitment to mentorship, lifelong learning, and the continual advancement of our team.

How to communicate this philosophy? Walk the talk. How we act and what we do speaks volumes.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1. Empathy builds trust. I’ve seen how understanding my team’s needs can deepen trust, making our healthcare mission more driven and cohesive.

2. Empathy enhances communication. Active listening bridges gaps between differing viewpoints, which is crucial for collaborative problem-solving in healthcare.

3. Empathy drives engagement. Recognizing individual contributions not only boosts morale, but fosters a culture where every team member feels valued and motivated to leverage their gifts and be creative.

4. Empathy fosters innovation. Encouraging the open sharing of ideas leads to breakthroughs in patient care, proving that a diverse team, united by empathy, can achieve remarkable innovations. Our team at Equality Health is a leader in Medicaid innovation, an area ripe for advancement and new approaches.

5. Empathy strengthens relationships. My commitment to understanding and supporting both my team, our PCPs and member patients has been instrumental in forming strong, lasting connections.

All these practices have been instrumental in my leadership journey. Particularly in healthcare, where it’s all about people, empathy can significantly impact outcomes and team dynamics.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

In my journey as a leader, I’ve learned that empathy, while a strength, comes with its own set of challenges. It’s about striking a balance, especially in healthcare — ensuring that our drive to understand and support others doesn’t cloud our judgment or lead to personal exhaustion. By setting clear boundaries, practicing self-care, and promoting a team culture of empathy, I’ve found a way to effectively harness this powerful trait. It’s this approach that enables us to lead with compassion, making thoughtful decisions that benefit our team and our collective mission.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

At night, my concerns gravitate towards Arizona’s shortage of healthcare professionals, the push for comprehensive VBC — will we ever get there? — closing care gaps and eliminating health inequities.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am a leader focused on the Value-Based Care movement in healthcare, which was launched more than a decade ago and needs everybody’s support. From providers, health systems and payers to business leaders, community organizations, government leaders at the federal and state level and patients. Please join this movement, which aims to drive enhanced patient experiences, better health outcomes, reduced healthcare costs and eradicate health inequities in the U.S. health system. My focus is on fostering collaborations and providing resources to facilitate this transition, recognizing its potential to transform healthcare delivery across the state and nation.

How can our readers further follow you online? is the best way to follow Equality Health’s work.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.