Join us on Thursday, January 27th at 8 PM ET on Twitter @AcademicSurgery, #AASChat to discuss! Moderated by Dr. Anthony Villano (@AMVillanoMD), Dr. Lesly Dossett (@Leslydossett) and Dr. Luke Funk (@lmfunk2)
I chose the topic for this blog post months in advance, very purposefully, to give myself a mental exercise. We often acknowledge when individuals are great leaders, but we very infrequently take a step back to identify why we think so. Conceptualizing the traits that define a successful leader into concrete ideas takes a considerable amount of reflection. Doing so is important, as it allows one to model good leadership behaviors and identify individuals who can serve as role models. Ultimately, great leaders are inextricably tied to our individual successes, and often our success in academia is dependent on finding them. I have been fortunate to serve in numerous capacities within the ACS, Committee on Cancer, and AAS as well as in leadership positions for residency/fellowship. Over the course of almost a decade of training, I have tried to gather my own personal list of behaviors I want to model, or ones that I have found successful for individuals that inspire me. I hope by sharing these leadership values it stimulates everyone to self-reflect, define their own “true north”, and generate their personal moral compass for leadership success.
1) Lead by example
There is no quicker way to achieve team synergy than to set the bar high for yourself. People on your team will take notice and will frequently rise to the occasion to meet you. Leaders accept, by default, that their actions will fall under more intense scrutiny than those of their colleagues. Identify your moral compass early, establish clear values for your team, and portray those values yourself on a consistent basis.
2) Practice what you preach
This is a close relative to leading by example; if leading by example is the path to team synergy then hypocrisy is the path to team collapse. We have all seen hypocritical individuals in action, and it gets ugly quick. Leaders who demand timeliness yet show up to meetings late themselves. Who tout respect yet throw fits in the OR when something goes awry. Once hypocrisy creeps in, it is almost impossible to recover the team’s trust. This all comes back to a period of self-reflection. Leaders must identify the values they wish to portray and shape their behaviors to coincide with that framework.
3) Put in the time
There is a finite amount of time in the day, and being a leader takes up yet another piece of the pie. Finding the necessary space to lead, and to do it well, comes down to creating successful habits. There are several factors to consider here: When are you most productive? What other responsibilities do you have? Do you have protected time at work to do this? One easy mistake is taking on too many projects. Smart leaders know when to say “no”, with the understanding that other important areas of their work will degrade if given only half their attention. Halfhearted leadership becomes obvious to team members and quickly degrades respect. There are many ways to build successful habits, and what works for one person may not work for others. For more on cultivating successful habits, I refer you to two excellent books: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. The important thing is identifying what works for you and developing that routine.
4) Treat others as you would want to be treated
Everyone’s parents were right on this one. However, the way this old adage is implemented in the leadership world is a bit more nuanced. It is common sense that you should be nice to everyone. What is not so obvious is how one conveys their status as the team leader. Over emphasizing the hierarchal nature of the team and portraying images of self-importance are common mistakes that erode team dynamics. Team members feel most valuable when they are treated as equals. As a leader, one must fight the urge to “speak down” to the team or “give orders”. Everyone benefits when the team is successful. Great leaders do so from a position of mutual understanding, respect, and common goals. I posit that you will be a more effective leader by downplaying that label and leading from a position of equality. Practice humility.
5) Understand the needs of your team
A strong team is a diverse one. And with that comes a diverse set of goals with unique needs to achieve them. Taking the time to understand the individuals on your team sets the stage for success. The only way to truly do so is to cultivate an environment of open communication, devoid of judgment. If your team does not feel comfortable divulging their personal aspirations, you’ll find yourself driving blind. Organizing your team around the success of the individuals that comprise it will not only provide concrete goals but also lead to an environment where the team members elevate each other. Poor leaders ignore the goals of their team members and focus on personal gain. The ploy becomes obvious over time, and they soon find themselves without a team at all.
6) Be a “closer”
Completing tasks and doing so on time are absolute musts. A track record of reliability is a guaranteed way to garner more responsibility and professional advancement. Further, a team that is reliable from the top down need not waste energy wondering if and when things will be completed. The secret sauce for this is organizational skills, which is more easily said than done. Fortunately, in our era of technology, there are many virtual platforms to cultivate an organized team (probably the most popular are Slack, Trello, Monday.com, and Connecteam). Whatever platform or methodology you choose, make sure you always finish what you start!
7) Look to the future
Complacency is an easy trap to succumb to, especially if the team has early successes. Leaders need to be aware of this tendency and combat it by always looking to innovate. Reinventing yourself and the team creates new opportunities which ensure that output does not stagnate. One necessary component is to not fear failure. Failures are unavoidable when one embarks upon a new and likely unfamiliar front. These need to be viewed as growth opportunities, and it becomes the role of the team leader to ensure morale remains positive. It is easy to let a failure stifle momentum. However, this takes me to my last point…
8) Exercise grit
Grit is an interesting term with a multitude of connotations. With respect to leadership, I want to highlight grit in the sense of how one responds to failures. A good leader uses failures as opportunities. Persistence, even in the face of adversity, is a recipe for eventual success. I look back at my first ever publication as a prime example. I submitted to seven journals before it was eventually accepted. Receiving 6 prior rejections was of course disheartening, and as a resident who was applying for Surgical Oncology the pressure to produce was never greater. It eventually found a home in a journal, and that set the stage for future successes in publishing that by no means required so many efforts. This anecdote is but a microcosm of what a leader experiences, and it serves as a reminder that exercising grit will prevent misconstruing a momentary failure into a complete loss. The concept of grit has been studied extensively, and I recommend those interested to check out “Grit” by Angela Duckworth.
9) Closing remarks
I hope by reviewing this list it is obvious that leadership takes many forms. It by no means translates as the person who is always the loudest in the room. On the contrary, poise and quiet confidence can often win the day. Effective leaders exist in us all, and they can be actualized with effort to understand ourselves and those around us. That path is not always easy, but nothing worth doing is.
#AASChat Questions – Here’s what we’ll chat about:
Question 1: Good leadership takes on many forms. What do you think are important qualities of good leadership? Why?
Question 2: For the trainees and early career surgeons, how do you identify and reach out to leaders you admire for mentorship?
Question 3: Effective leadership is time consuming. What strategies do you employ to keep yourself on-task?
Question 4: Sometimes once in a position of leadership it can be challenging to illicit honest feedback from your team. How do you go about getting meaningful feedback to foster self-improvement?
Question 5: There is increasing interest in incorporating leadership training into surgical education. What do you think would be most valuable for leadership education?