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Brandywine Living President and CEO, Brenda Bacon on Leadership

Meet Brenda Bacon, co-founder, President and CEO of Brandywine Senior Living and Board Chairman of Argentum. Bacon’s dual roles make her one of the most visible leaders in senior living: New Jersey-based Brandywine serves more than 2,800 residents across 27 communities, while Argentum is one of the largest national trade groups for senior housing operators.

But while Bacon now is at the helm of two firmly established organizations, she considers herself an entrepreneur by nature, and she has been an agent for change at both Brandywine and Argentum. We sat down with Bacon to hear how she continues to lead with an entrepreneurial spirit, lessons she learned from her time in the political arena—and why her book recommendations have caused some alarm in new hires.

Business, Politics, and Leadership

You had a health care concentration in business school at Wharton, but I’m wondering if you had an interest in senior care specifically?

I never had a particular interest in senior housing back then. I’ve always believed that access to health care and
education are the game changers, and so if you had access to those then you could truly live the American Dream.

My affiliation with James Florio [then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey] came at that time because he was on the health care subcommittee in Congress, and they were doing the National Health Planning Act. [But my interest] was more about children, and if I talked about the adult population, it was more about economics, never as an age-cohort of seniors. That came later.


I was working [as an executive] at Pennsylvania Hospital. I had just gotten my graduate degree.

In getting to talk to the doctors and the people working at the hospital, a lot of focus was on what’s happening to the elderly population in that Philadelphia market. When I left Pennsylvania Hospital and started my own consulting company, a lot of what I was doing with hospitals and the people who were developing facilities was with long-term care.

All of our Medicaid, Medicare and private dollars go to treating people at the end of their lives. If you’re going to improve access for all age groups all over the country, all economic strata, then you’ve got to be able to lessen the money that’s tied up at the end of life. It would be a different thing if the money that’s tied up at the end of life was producing some kind of wonderful experience as you age and you die. [But] it was awful and in many cases it still needs a lot of work.

You were a hospital exec, started a consulting company, were an elected official in Camden County and a senior advisor to Florio, after he was elected as New Jersey governor. What did you learn about leadership through those changes?

My undergraduate degree is in social work. I think the transition was really going from social work, where I was dealing person-by-person, and then realizing you needed to think bigger. You needed to change systems, to be involved with people who had the power to change those systems, and you needed to influence that power.

Then deciding to go to business school was part of, if you’re really going to make an impact in this world, you’ve got to have the knowledge to do it, the power, the positioning.

The leadership part is probably something that’s been with me for a long time. I grew up in Washington, D.C. and I was in the junior leadership program. President Kennedy gave us our awards; it was the last thing he did in the Rose Garden before he went to Dallas [and was assassinated]. It was something I’ll always remember. I am a bit of a command-and-control kind of person by nature, so it may just be DNA.

You also helped to transition Donna Shalala into the being Health and Human Services Secretary in the Clinton administration. Has your time in the public sector influenced how you lead?

Absolutely. Politics and government are the hardest things in the world. Business is a lot easier. Talk about dealing with a whole lot of egos and people who resist change!

You have bureaucrats who have been [there] for a long time, and they derive their power from what they do. They’re not interested in innovation or anything happening differently.

How would you define leadership?

In order to be a leader you have to have follow-ship. People have to be able to believe that you care about what you’re doing, that you’ve thought about it and that you’re approaching it intelligently. It’s so different than management, so different than giving somebody a title and saying, “Now that’s your portfolio and these are the things you need to do.”

How do you get people to understand and buy into a vision?

You have to develop a team that believes in that vision, because you can’t do it by yourself. [You invest time] in that team and understanding them and having a common view of where we’re going. We may not know how we’re going to get there right this minute, and a lot of things are going to happen. You have to be adaptable to what’s going on in the market, and you have to be nimble.

It sounds like you’ve been adaptable in your career choices as well?

I’ve never been a person who’s said, ‘In 5 years I want to be…’ I don’t think that way. I say take advantage of every opportunity that’s in front of you.

In terms of vision, where do you draw inspiration from?

I draw my inspiration from people and things that I see and things I read. I’m known to get up in the middle of the night and write a note or send an email and try not to text someone. I may be walking down this hallway and see something that registers later on, and two days later, I’ll be able to connect things and realize what we need to do.

If you emulate what other people do, like they’ve figured out how to do staffing so we should just do what they do, I think you miss a lot. You need to develop your own approaches.

Are there specific books about leadership that inspire you?

This is off the record. My favorite leadership book, because I think it’s the most sound and deepest, but also makes it interesting, is Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

Why off the record?

It sounds awful!

I think people will appreciate it.

Okay, go ahead put it on the record.

When did you read it for the first time?

Maybe 20, 25 years ago. I’ve read it more than once. I’ve had a lot of people in my company read it from time to time.

To me, it talks about what your responsibilities are as a leader. You’re not a manager, you can’t blame circumstances. A leader takes responsibility and leads. A leader’s job is to make sure that the warriors have the right leaders to lead them. That’s your main job. Make sure you have the right leaders in place throughout your organization.

I’ve said to people who come to work with us over the years that this is a book they should read, and they’re always kind of like, ‘I don’t think I want this job…’

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