Veteran brings goal-oriented mindset to role at World Clinic

From Green Berets to blue Sanford badge, Jose Vasquez leads by serving

Jose Vasquez smiles while sitting at a conference table.

If you want Jose Vasquez to accomplish a task, follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Make it a real challenge.
  2. Be able to explain why it needs to be done.
  3. Make sure it serves others.
  4. Tell him that actually, you don’t think he can do it.
  5. Stand back and watch him “get after it.”

A conversation with Vasquez quickly convinces you that, whatever his goal is at the moment, he will achieve it. As a leader in the Green Berets, and as a leader at Sanford Health — a World Clinic director — he has proven himself over and over.

He’s insightful, enlightening, engaging. Inspiring. And even when Vasquez repeats the phrase, “I want to be a legend,” paradoxically you sense a certain humility about him. With intention, he doesn’t hold fast to his ego.

His servant leader attitude and goals have helped the veteran make the transition from U.S. Army to health care.

Learn more: Ex-Green Beret leads Sanford clinic in Costa Rica

Vasquez shared lessons on this transition — the challenge, the fear — and other areas of his life during a conversation that easily, enjoyably could have stretched hours longer. (“I talk a lot,” he admitted several times.)

Here are some of those lessons.

On setting goals

Vasquez started setting goals young. For example, he knew that if he wanted to make the most of his life, he would have a much better chance if he attended a private Jesuit high school than a rougher public high school in the part of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his family lived.

Thanks to his parents, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was 5, working two jobs, he was able to go to that school. There, he developed skills in critical thinking, along with a heart and passion for serving that drives him still.

While in high school, he decided to to go college and join the military — the first in his family to do either of those.

“I reasoned that if my parents can come, and this country gives me all these opportunities, as long as you fight for it and you work hard, then I want to be able to protect that,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez remembers that as a second lieutenant in the basic infantry course, he set his goal of becoming a lieutenant colonel. He met that goal — making it through the rigorous Special Forces training and serving as a Green Beret along the way. Then it was time for a new challenge: health care. Specifically, starting last year working with Sanford Health’s partners in Costa Rica to expand access through telemedicine and an electronic medical record.

On achieving goals

“When I set a goal, I’m after it,” Vasquez said.

One of Vasquez’s leadership mantras is “passion, purpose and autonomy.” Passion, he clearly has in abundance. He gives his team the purpose, and then he gives them autonomy to figure out the best solution.

So being a Green Beret is basically being given a mission and just figuring out a way to accomplish it, he said. For example, if told that in three weeks you want to launch to Mars, well, the Green Berets would be on it.

But first, they’d ask questions, such as why you need to go to Mars. “That’s a big one. Tell people why you’re doing something,” Vasquez said.

Then, they’d get to work.

“Just don’t be surprised when you’ve got all your scientists kidnapped because they are coming here” to help the Green Berets, he joked.

He had the same feeling about getting off the plane in Costa Rica in January with his two suitcases: “Figure it out.” He knew what Sanford Health wanted him to do there. Vasquez appreciated the “moonshot” vision Sanford Health has. He felt challenged and empowered — and grateful that his supervisor, Brian DeHaai, senior director of Sanford World Clinic, took a chance on him.

“He saw in me what he needed and what the organization needed,” Vasquez said.

So Vasquez’s advice for others applies to himself as well: “Just try.”

Even though “you’re going to fall, and it’s going to hurt,” he said: “Just keep going.”

Vasquez doesn’t exactly ignore the naysayers — those people who told him he wasn’t cut out for Special Forces or for health care. He uses their comments as fuel to try even harder.

On leadership

Vasquez believes leadership involves serving and supporting. In the infantry, he recognized that he didn’t want to be like the captain who told Vasquez he needed to distance himself from his troops, that he was too close. “I didn’t buy that.”

Vasquez respected the words of another commander much more, whose evaluation of Vasquez said that he consistently builds a team of teams.

“I’m just one of many that felt the same way, in the sense of you take care of your people,” Vasquez said.

He values empowering those he’s leading and watching them grow.

“I love helping people see the light, that they can do so much more,” he said.

One example in Costa Rica he’s happy to point out is a young nurse who had no project management experience. Yet she was selected to lead the telemedicine project, and some people doubted she could do it.

“I wasn’t one of them,” Vasquez clarified.

Within months, the program had been implemented. And the nurse had gone from docile and timid, Vasquez said, to communicating with confidence to leaders. She had been encouraged by Vasquez and her supervisor.

“The whole point is to focus on what’s important. We’re trying to get access to care for people in remote areas in Costa Rica,” he said.

People will respond to a vision, he said.

“We call it commander’s intent: Once people know your intent, at the end of the day, you don’t tell them how to do it.  You just tell them what needs to be done generally.  You just let them run, and they will surprise you every time.”

On the transition, and the fear

Vasquez started reading and doing self-reflection work about his life’s next chapter well before he left the military.

Vasquez found the U.S. Army Special Forces motto, “De oppresso liber,” to fit his new role at Sanford World Clinic nicely as well: “To free the oppressed.”

“This is why I’m at Sanford,” he said. But as prepared as he was, the step still proved challenging.

“I never felt fear until now, until being here in Sanford, because the transition is hard. And I’m here to tell you, I thought that I was a very resilient person,” Vasquez said.

After all, he’d been a Green Beret. He’d been all over the world, but particularly working on counterdrug operations in Colombia. This was simply going to help a health care system in Costa Rica.

Vasquez said his confidence and ability to connect and articulate might leave people with a different impression of him. But “that transition is scary, and I’m still going through it.”

To help, he uses meditation and falls back on the reassuring realization that he’s still in control of his own life.

And he encourages his kids to not become paralyzed by fear with an old quote: “Never take counsel of your fears.”

On making a difference

In an outhouse in a remote part of Costa Rica, Vasquez had an epiphany as he wept and prayed. “That was really the first time that I realized that I’m home. … Health care is home.”

Vasquez and his team had, with just a few weeks’ notice, organized a clinic of sorts, bringing about a dozen doctors to serve that area’s indigenous population. In five hours, they provided care to 350 people.

To see all of their medical tragedies — not in a combat zone, just people like a mother who had stage IV melanoma on her foot — touched Vasquez deeply. “I was grateful for the opportunity to just be able to bring this to them, to even play a small part,” he said.

“If I die today, I have at least helped provide some value to someone. And that continues to be my goal.”

Vasquez said his team was able to accomplish in six months in Costa Rica what they had thought it would take three years to do, so he’s exploring his next health care purpose.

His approach will surely be the same.

Vasquez values the philosophy of analyzing critically but proceeding humbly. So if he comes into a situation and sees a process in place, just because he knows of a better one, he doesn’t assume that it would be better here. He asks questions: “Why are you doing it this way?” It might be for a reason he’s not seeing.

That requires leaving “the egos at the door.”  Vasquez said he isn’t perfect at that. And he makes mistakes “all the time.”

“But,” he added, “what I’ve learned over the years is to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry. Help me to be better.’”

To him, the relationship is most important. “That trust is like the most invaluable currency that we can ever gain.”

On life lessons

Family: Since working at Sanford Health, Vasquez has discovered something about his wife. “I didn’t know the diamond that I had right next to me as a mentor,” he said.

In the military, he made it a practice to compartmentalize and never bring work home. He couldn’t talk about a lot of it anyway.

But now, they can have discussions about his day, about his work.

His family includes three daughters — two older and out of the house, and one age 6 — plus a 4-year-old son. They’re so used to moving from place to place in the military that one of their family mottos is: “Together is our favorite place to be.”

Age: Vasquez would like to emphasize the fact that he is 44 years old — with “20-plus years, a lifetime of leadership and making errors and failing forward and all sorts of craziness.”

Yes, he looks much younger. But that made him really appreciate the time he sported a full beard while working in Afghanistan. “I was respected,” Vasquez said.

Then an order came down for everyone to shave their beards. “I was treated like a kid initially,” he said. Note to the world: He’s not a kid.

Being legendary: “I want to be legendary,” Vasquez said. “I want my teams to be legendary.”

How do you do that? Adopt a mindset, he said. Then act like a legend. If you have a setback, don’t tell yourself you’re never going to make it. Feel sorry for yourself a little — “Change socks. Drink some water.” — then go.

“Pick yourself back up, and let’s move forward. … Don’t think of quitting.”

He’s now harnessing that energy for people who need help. “I want to create a team of legendary health care destroyers,” he said. “Let’s get after it.”

Recommended reading

Jose Vasquez peppers a conversation with references to what he has learned from a number of books. “If you want to lead — if you want to grow — and you’re not reading, then you’re basically illiterate,” he said. Some titles and thoughts on his recommended reading list:

  • “Deep Medicine” by Eric Topol: “It helped me to focus the use of technology to enhance the empathetic relationship between the patient and the physician.”
  • “What Color Is My Parachute” by Richard Bolles: “It focused my career aspirations.”
  •  “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle: “Human behavior doesn’t change, but culture does. A group with the right culture can conquer the world.”
  • “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown: “Do more with more. Period! People can accomplish more than what they think they can. They just need someone to believe in them and guide them, if needed.”
  • “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” by Jim Mattis and Bing West: “A reminder that we can be your best friend or worst enemy — you choose. This has been my most recent read and key to remembering to use my initiative to aggressively implement projects and plans to further Sanford’s goals.”

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Posted In Faces of Sanford Health, Health Care Heroes, Veterans, World Clinic

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