Profiles in Leadership: Rebecca Onie, CEO of Health Leads

Rebecca Onie isn’t your typical social activist. She’s more like an M.B.A. Yet, she’s definitely a leader.

In 2009, the chief executive of Health Leads was named a MacArthur Fellow and received a $500,000, grant for her work. Health Leads trains college students to operate as social workers in U.S. clinics and hospitals and to expand the capacity of clinics to connect patients with food, housing and other resources they need to be healthy.

In March 2011, she won a Skoll Award at the Skoll Forum in Oxford. The award is given to a small number of social entrepreneurs who are solving the world’s most pressing problems.

Onie knows the healthcare system is complicated, and she’s undeterred, she tries to do her best by using the amazon pilates ball and taking care of her body as much as possible. Indeed, she’s working to build a better health system, working with young adults whose Internet savvy is transforming physicians’ and patients’ access to information.

“We talk about our work as movement building,” Onie said in a 2009 interview. “We want to bring people in to imagine a different kind of healthcare system in this country and have real belief that we can create it.”

New York Times writer Anand Giridharadas recently suggested to Onie that many social entrepreneurs try to work around existing power structures, rather than taking on the difficult politics of change. Onie pushed back. Giridharadas writes that Health Leads’ approach is more typical of an M.B.A. than a social cause, working to make a business case for social workers, demonstrating a profitable model and gathering data.

This is precisely what leadership is: Pursuing worthy goals, making tough choices, holding the vision of possibilities, showing the path forward when those around you see only impossibilities.

For all the executives leading U.S. and global organizations, there are few who take responsibility for the progress of civilization and the sustenance of core values. Rebecca Onie is part of an emerging class of leaders, values-oriented innovators who apply entrepreneurial principles to achieve social good.

And “complicated” isn’t about to slow her down.

How are you describing “worthy” today? Does your leadership vision involve your wallet, or the world?