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Leadership Lessons: Deborah Armstrong, CEO, Rockdale Medical Center
Deborah Armstrong

Deborah Armstrong is in her third year as chief executive officer of Rockdale Medical Center, the county’s only hospital. The for-profit, acute-care hospital has more than 1,200 employees and treats over 85,000 patients a year. Armstrong started her career as a physical therapist 30 years ago, then worked her way up through various management positions at Georgia Baptist Hospital (now Atlanta Medical Center) and RMC. She offered these leadership lessons in a recent News interview.


Be loyal. “I’m very loyal to where I work. I’m not a job-hopper. I think when you do that, you find yourself with lots of opportunities presented.” 


Go outside your comfort zone. Armstrong gained valuable management experience by agreeing to lead departments specializing in subjects outside her personal expertise, such as psychology. “Mostly, [leadership] is not about being the master of knowledge or skill of anything in particular. It’s about getting people who are masters and maximizing the [work of ] people around you.”


Build team relationships. “It’s all about relationships,” Armstrong says. “You’ve got to be smart. I’ve got to have excellent analytical skills and strategic skills in being a forward-thinker. But you can have skills, but you need to have relationships.” 

That especially means building trust and confidence with employees. People work best when they trust the leader will support them without taking all the credit, she said. And when an unpopular decision must be made, it is easier when the staff trusts the leader.


Be open-minded and have empathy. “I am typically able to see another person’s point of view, and I think I’m able to help people see things in another way. I try to always be open-minded to see other’s perspectives.” That helps to reach agreements and is key to customer service. 

Empathy is a crucial skill for hospital workers dealing with patients, but even the most sensitive staffer will have trouble thinking of other people all the time. Armstrong said there’s a saying at RMC about keeping up empathy: “You have to fake it ’til you feel it.”


Know your personality type. A self-described introvert, Armstrong was aware she had to overcome some natural shyness when she became a hospital CEO. “You used to be able to hear my heart beating out loud,” she jokes, but said she has become more outgoing as she builds relationships inside and outside the hospital. “It’s practice.”

But, she added, it is important to remember the strengths of your personality type, too, not just the challenges. “I think introversion brings a lot of value to the table. You’re a thinker…You’re taking a lot in. Someone might be the life of the party, but maybe not paying attention to what’s going on in the room.”