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Dennis Wagner Article

Dennis Wagner: A ‘National Treasure’ Establishes The Alliance so Bold Goals and ‘All Teach All Learn’ Can Live On


Dennis Wagner, one of the founders of the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance, is a firm believer that the powerful mindsets and methods used by communities of practice to generate breakthrough results are known, clear, and can be replicated. He’s so committed to those principles that after a 30+ year career in government, he founded the Yes And Leadership consulting group in 2020 to help leaders and organizations adopt those effective leadership tools and methods.

One of the principles he believes in is committing to bold goals. “In my experience, you set the goal and then the goal, if you’re serious about pursuing it and are in constant action on it, causes the necessary system to evolve,” he says. “Aims create systems and systems create results. But you really have to own it and then live with it. It can be wonderful and it can generate beautiful results and outcomes. But there’s a tension involved in that it does require persistence and courage.”

Wagner attended a one-room schoolhouse in Montana from kindergarten through the eighth grade and went on to graduate with a Master’s degree from Montana State University. He says he was drawn to work in the nation’s capital to have an impact that would make the world a better place. He has worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

He’s been called a ‘national treasure’ by leaders in the organ donation and transplant community for the impact he has made. It was during his time at HRSA that he established and served as one of the key leaders of the Breakthrough Collaboratives that led to the creation of The Alliance (see previous story—“A Bold Goal Lives On”). “During the 33 plus years that I worked for the federal government, I saw that this was how influential national associations get born,” says Wagner. “I absolutely loved the Breakthrough Collaborative’s Leadership Coordinating Council and did everything I could to encourage the discussion about formalizing it into what became The Alliance.”

Those who worked with Wagner on the Breakthrough Collaborative are quick to credit the power of his personality with the success of the initiative.

“Dennis is a huge personality that inspires people and calls you to be your best person and will challenge you,” says Susan Gunderson, CEO of LifeSource and an Alliance Founding Year Steering Committee member. “And he’s got magic in his delivery.”

Joseph S. Roth, president and CEO of the New Jersey Sharing Network, who was another founder of The Alliance and served on the board from 2006-2010 says, “Dennis Wagner was amazing up there on the stage at the Collaborative meetings. His driving the energy of the meetings and just his style and his knowledge motivated everyone.”

“Dennis’ energy, his enthusiasm, the way he expressed himself in front of the crowd – he just pumped people up,” says Howard Nathan, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program and one of the original Alliance Board members. “He really was a key leader.”

While Wagner was at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, he was part of the leadership team for the Partnership for Patients community of practice that used positive leadership mindsets and All Teach All Learn leadership methods to generate breakthrough results that achieved dramatic reductions in hospital patient harms. He and his executive team colleagues were recognized by the Partnership for Public Service as Federal Employees of the Year in 2016 for leading that work.

“With an all teach, all learn approach, you’re identifying high performers and you’re standing for their performance,” says Wagner. “You’re asserting that this is real and we believe it to be true and that we should be learning from these people. That can be a hard thing to do and it’s not a natural thing for a lot of people. It puts you in the position of asserting that these people and their practices are effective in achieving results.”

“Everything in the Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative and the subsequent versions that transpired really was an ‘all teach, all learn,’ endeavor led by the community, for the community, that was generating results for the community and the patients we all serve,” he says. “And that’s essentially the way The Alliance was birthed as well. It was that kind of milieu of people with a common goal and a common vision working together that ultimately caused it to happen. We helped the entire community to get better, together.”

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