This past year, I started a podcast at my medical school called “This Meharrian Life.” The goal was to celebrate the hard work and dedication of the students, physicians, alumni, and administrators who make Meharry Medical College a fantastic place to learn and grow.
This is the transcript of my last episode, where I compiled the responses to my questions on leadership. What is leadership? Is it innate or learned? How can we become better leaders?
For more about what I gained from this podcast, check out the 10 Life Lessons I Learned from Starting a Podcast.
Hey Everyone, My name is Bassam Zahid – Welcome to Episode 18, the season finale of This Meharrian Life – The podcast where we interview Meharry students, faculty, administrators, and alumni, and showcase our school’s diverse contribution to the history of American medicine.
Now that we are at the last episode of the season… I have a confession to make. This entire year, I have looked at this podcast project as a love letter to Meharry Medical College. It’s been my way to honor the tremendous people who have worked and served here. To celebrate the leaders and pioneers that teach and train here. And over the past five months, I have had the great pleasure of interviewing an amazing group of people. They became successful not just from their own talent and skill but because they also took the time to elevate those around them.
Secretly, I wanted to use this podcast as an opportunity to learn about ambition and leadership. To sit directly across from these doctors and hear their stories. While at Meharry, I watched some of them during my clerkships. I noticed their different styles in the way they commanded a room or talked to their staff. It got me curious. How did these doctors, dentists, and administrators become the leaders they are? How do they inspire those around them? What is there philosophy on leadership? Most importantly, what can we learn from them?
As healthcare rapidly changes and as we talk about the stagnation of the number of African-American physicians in medicine, as we talk about underserved care, and as we talk about innovation and creativity and entrepreneurship, it is clear to me that Meharry needs to train not just providers but leaders as well. We have a unique vantage point in medicine, a notion that I have tried my best to illustrate this season.
So every chance I had, I asked the interviewees about their philosophy on leadership. And one of the most interesting things I discovered was that people had a wide spectrum of thoughts on the subject. They were different, yet for each of these individuals they were effective. There are different paths available to all of us. And as a collection, their insights provide a valuable tool for us to learn from.
The first thing that becomes apparent is that there is a consensus that the best leaders are servants first. In fact, it’s in the Meharry motto: Worship of God through Service of Mankind. Here’s Dr. Tropez Sims, Professor in the department of Pediatrics:
“A leader has to be a servant first, and, they have to realize that they don’t know everything. And you want to have buy-in from all the people that you are working with. Because the idea that they come up with, maybe the unique thing that you need to do.”
One of the ultimate servants at Meharry, President and CEO of Meharry Medical College, Dr. James Hildreth, agrees:
“Leadership means service. My job is to facilitate the success of others. And what that means is that when I sit in this chair it is not about James Hildreth anymore, it is about Meharry Medical College. And everything I do, if I approach the job correctly, is to serve the needs of the institution and all the people who are part of it. So from my point of view, leaders are servants, and their job is to facilitate the success and growth of the people around them.”
Beyond service, another classic characteristic of a leader echoed among the interviewees was the belief that leaders must listen.
Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon, dean of the Dental School put it aptly:
“A good leader, to me, communicates well and listens well. Something that my father would always says is, because I like to talk, “Cherae, just sit and listen. Do more listening and less talking and you will be amazed by how much you can learn.” But, I think when you listen you appreciate people for who they are, and realize that everyone has an opinion, and that opinion is important because they have given it. You may not agree with it, but value that that is their opinion. Every person has a value.”
The dean of the medical school, Dr. Veronica Mallett, expanded on listening, emphasizing that being open to new ideas is critical:
“The other piece of leadership that I pride myself on is that I am willing to listen. And my team will tell you… I am a surgeon, I will make up my mind quickly. But if I am presented new information, I will change my mind. But if you present me an argument about why I should go a different way. I think that is also a good leadership trait.”
After listening and service, there was a wide range of characteristics that go into leadership.
For example, Dr. Gerald Davis, assistant professor and an Assistant Dean at the School of Dentistry believes leadership means commitment:
“And this is by author unknown, but ‘commitment is doing the thing you said you were going to do, long after the mood you said it in has left you.’ And when I heard that, that just kind of blew my mind. I think that that is where the leader is. The leader is the person who said I am going to keep doing this.”
For, Dr. Millard Collins, chair of the Department of Family Medicine, a leader needs to be authentic:
“The very best leaders are those who, there’s a poem, but who live their creed. I would rather see a sermon than to hear one any day. I would rather one come walk with me than show me the way. The very best leaders are the ones who actually practice what they preach. They avoid the perils of hypocrisy. Because once you get labeled or exposed as a fraud or fake and phony, I think you lose the effectiveness. So the most effective leaders are those that live their creeds. One of the best lessons I got from a leader was that a true leader is one who takes the bulk of the blame when things go wrong and the least amount of credit when things go right.”
And for Dr. Lemuel Dent, Chief Medical Officer of Nashville General Hospital and Associate Professor of Surgery, you have to be willing to work hard and be dedicated to be a leader:
“So, one of the thing that helps is to find something that you are passionate about, a cause you want to make better, and you just get in there and start working. You work, and you learn, and then you can direct others. Pretty soon, you find yourself… a leader! It just happens, there is no magic formula for it.”
So you might be checking these off in your head. You are passionate, real, and committed. You are a pretty good listener and you want to serve others. But what does it take to become an even better leader?
Dr. Fatima Lima, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research breaks down her three step plan:
“A leader has to have a vision and has to know why they wake up every morning, right? I just told you a couple of reasons why I wake up in the morning, right? Because if you don’t know, if someone is always telling you what to do, or you are following someone, it gets old quick. So you have to have your own compass.”
But before we go on to number two, Dr. Mallett, Dean of the School of Medicine, has an important point to make about vision:
“A vision without a plan is more like a hallucination.”
Okay, got it. If I don’t want to seem like I am tripping, then vision needs a plan. Alright, let’s get back to Dr. Lima:
“Second, you have to be able to talk to people, inspire them, to actually do the work. Because 9/10 times you are actually not doing it yourself.
And I think the third quality of a good leader is the one that listens. Which is the hardest. Because we all like to talk.”
So, once again, we are back to listening. When I asked President Hildreth how one can become a better leader, he also couldn’t help but re-emphasize its importance:
“By listening and by learning. Cause I think I shared with you before that , and I just thank my mother for this wonderful gift, of knowing that everything that you experience and every person that you meet, can teach you something. But you got to be open to what those lessons are. And I know for a fact that there are some leaders in large industries who look for people who have tried somethings and failed, but they want to make sure those individuals have learned some things from those failures. And so for me, that is what I try to do. I try to listen and I try to learn, and I try to do that every single day.”
This is all well and good. Have a vision with a plan. Be inspirational. And, of course, listen. But what if you are on the fence? What if you don’t know if you have the intangibles to be a leader? We have to ask the question: Are leaders born or are they made?
Dr. Bill Bates, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, adheres to nature:
“It’s a very difficult question. I think there is one something innate about it. I think the ability to be able to influence another person is the beginnings of leadership. That doesn’t mean coercion, it does not mean bullying, but it means presenting an idea that someone else buys into. And then by expanding that idea, one can become two, and two can become four, and leadership becomes a geometric progression.
I think all the while that you are cast into a leadership role, you need to turn around and look ‘are people really following what you are doing?'”
While Dr. Lemuel Dent believes in nurture:
“I tend to think they are made. You find yourself in a situation where things need to get done, and you find a way to get it done. And that makes you a leader.”
Reassuringly, he also feels that we all have the potential to lead:
“There are a couple of things that go into leadership, one, is this business about excellence, which I will repeat again. Being excellent about what you do. Integrity. Setting the example. I think all of us can be leaders. I don’t think there is a particular kind of person, or particular job, or whatever that makes you a leader. I think everyone, you know, can be a leader.”
Okay, so leaders can be born or made, depending on your perspective. It’s nature or nurture. But Dr. Bates brought up a good point. How do you get people to buy in and follow you?
Perhaps one of the best ways is establishing a high standard of rapport and respect between you and your team. Beyond the objectives you are trying to achieve, how you treat the people around you and the expectations you have for their improvement is paramount.
Here’s Dr. Dexter Samuels, Senior Vice-President for Student Affairs, talking about a brilliant guideline he uses to maintain a high functioning, motivated team:
“Leadership is, to me, about leaving the place that you work in a better place for the betterment not for yourself for others. And making sure that you pass on your knowledge to individuals. And so, to me everyone that works for me has to have a professional development program. I want to make sure that they progress in their career. I always say to the staff if they have been in their job for more than five years, I am not doing something right. So, it’s about promoting those individuals.”
And here is Dr. Billy Ballard, Chair and Professor in the Department of Pathology speaking about kindness and respect:
“I think it is being fair and trying to do whatever you can to advance the people that work with you. And respect. You know, we all have goals and your objectives and all those kinds of things, but the more you work with those people and the more you respect them and the more you appreciate what they do, the harder they work for you.
If you treat people well, people will work for you and they will do everything they can. You can’t, you can’t demand it. If you demand it, they will do what they have to do, but they will stop at that point. But if you treat them as a colleague, then they will work with you and help you to do what you need to do.”
Finally, here’s Dr. Monique Bennerman, Director of the Internal Medicine clerkship, who puts it simply but perfectly:
“So my philosophy as a leader is never ask anything of my troops that I haven’t done or that I will not be willing to do.”
Does this sound easy yet? Obviously being a leader is a lot harder than it looks. There are so many moving parts to keep track of. And of course, the haters are inevitable:
Here’s Dr. Samuels again:
“You are going to have people that are going to work against you in leadership, you are going to have people that don’t see eye to eye with you and ensure that you are not successful. You are going to have different factions that can make it very hard for you to succeed. But again you have to stay centrally focused on why you are here. You have to be myopic. You can’t see things through all lenses. Again You have to be focused on the mission of the institution, what is going to be best for the institution, and then again it is always for me what legacy are you going to leave.”
And some will complain about the choices you make. Dr. Bennerman talks about how to deal with that:
“Be happy with the decisions that you make. Some decisions that I make aren’t always nice or “good.” They are very difficult sometimes. But as a leader you have be able to say that you made the best decision that you could at that time and that situation.”
So leadership is challenging. Especially because you have to be accountable. According to Dr. Edward Hills, professor of OB-GYN, the difference between the leaders and the complainers is execution.
“If you see something that needs to be done, then that means that it is your responsibility to do something about it. Because, you know, it is not enough to notice things and complain about it and not work at it.”
As you can see, there are no easy passes here. You have to remember, I am talking to some docs who trained before there were wellness committees, weekly work hour limits, or such a thing as resident or student rights. Some of them cut their teeth in a time of blatant racism and sexism. These docs are forged from the same metals that built Wakanda. That stuff, that fortitude, is flowing through their blood.
And when I asked Dr. Hills if he ever got tired of being a leader, he gave me a definite yes. For him, there needs to be a certain self-awareness, an ability to calm the ego, and a willingness to pass the baton to a new generation:
“I think that, if you are a good leader, or a executive, or whatever, there comes a time where you have to look backwards at the things you have accomplished, and look forward at giving other people opportunities and knowing that it is now time for somebody else to show what they can do. Because no matter who you are you you are stuck in a certain time warp or time frame. And it is time. And recognize that it is time to allow for other leadership. So, yes, I think that there is always a time that a leader does have to be willing to and recognize when to welcome new leadership.”
Okay, so we have gotten a lot of information about leadership in a short amount of time. Let’s summarize some key points. Dr. Samuels, senior VP of Student Affairs, emphasizes that leadership is about the mission and helping others:
“There is a couple of things, one, it is not a popularity contest. That is one thing that people should realize. If you are a leader, it is not about looking good, it is about doing the right thing for the mission that you are serving. And again, it is about helping people. I have always felt and its always been my philosophy, it is not about me it is about others. Good things will come if I do good things for other people.”
And Dr. Bates believes that everything comes from a person’s inner strength. It comes from how much they believe in themselves:
“I think that is part of leadership is self confidence. And, I think, if you don’t have the confidence you are not going to be a leader. Because people will not follow someone who is tentative. You can ask questions, you can be reserved, but once you make a decision, you got to stand by the decision until you know that it is not the right one. Then you have to be willing to change it.”
In addition to all that, leadership means being a servant, a listener, a visionary. It means being passionate, committed, and authentic. It requires team building, staying mission driven, and dealing with the naysayers. It’s about being accountable, decisive, and confident.
Ultimately, leadership is an ongoing evolution. Whenever I find myself facing a challenge, whenever I fall short of a goal, and whenever I don’t inspire my team the way I had hoped, I have to remind myself that leaders like Barack Obama and Martin Luther King were not the same leaders at the start of their careers as they were at the end. And famously, Malcolm X made a dramatic shift in philosophy and leadership throughout his life.
It’s okay to make mistakes as you try to develop your leadership style. Just be willing to apologize and learn from the experiences. Throughout my four years at Meharry, many people can attest that I had my fair share of slip ups. I am just grateful that Meharry provided a supportive and nurturing environment for me to make these mistakes. I want to thank everyone from the students to the faculty to the administration who tolerated my, let’s call them, my unorthodox ways.
And for the students still at Meharry, especially for those entering as the Class of 2022, I hope you realize that you are literally standing on the shoulders of giants, you will literally be learning from them, the faculty and administration of this school that worked their entire careers to make these opportunities possible for the next generation. I also hope you realize that leadership can take many forms. It doesn’t have to be necessarily leading an extracurricular group. It could be anything from tutoring high school students, volunteering for a Senator, writing a book, and yes, even trying something creative, like starting a podcast. Just make sure that you have a cause or a passion, something you stand for, a purpose.
Then the most important thing is to take a chance on yourself. Try something that’s never been done before. Stand out. I always like to tell people that everyone has million dollar ideas. However, the difference between those who have and those who don’t is execution. The healthcare system needs the people of Meharry, from students to faculty to alumni, to step up and execute. We can make no more excuses.
And if you are still lacking that confidence, Dr. Lima is here to tell you that you have no choice. I asked her, what d o you do if you are feeling tentative?
“Uhh, grow a spine. Become bold. Because the world is not for the weak. You know, either you are at lunch or are you lunch.”
There you have it. I hope you’re hungry. Cause it’s time to eat.
I want to give special thanks to everyone who made this podcast possible.
First, this project would not exist without Dr. Dexter Samuels, who believed in the idea when I pitched it and helped facilitate the steps to make it a reality.
Next, the team at the Office of Communications and Marketing deserve a lot of credit for giving me the guidance, platform, and freedom to learn how to create the podcast on the fly. Specifically, Ken Morris, Lucius Patenaude, and Sherlene Frye gave me a lot of encouragement and I am grateful for their help.
I also want to thank all of the guests and co-hosts I have had over the season. It was a remarkable experience sitting with the best Meharry has to offer and learning directly from them. Everyone involved had very busy schedules and I am grateful that they made the time to share their wisdom.
Finally, I want to thank, you, the listeners. As I mentioned in the previous episode, none of this could be possible without the support and feedback we received from you.
If you are interested in my other projects, or want to learn more about me, check out my website at www.bassamzahid.com. You can contact me and find my social media accounts from there.
Thanks for listening! And thank you Meharry.