Packing for Leadership Courses: What to Bring & What to Take Away

By Joseph D. Phillips, MD

October 20, 2020

Leadership can be difficult to define concisely, but you know it when it inspires you, or when it is absent. In the realm of medicine, leadership themes often relate to integrity, trust, having a vision, creating an environment that promotes teamwork, developing others, and building relationships. Paramount today is also the ability to cultivate and promote diversity and inclusion. 

The above qualities, however, are seemingly at odds with the traditional Halstedian pyramidal system that dominated American surgical training during the 20th Century. In this hierarchy, leaders emerged by personal achievement. Success was attained by showing up early, staying late, having ability, believing that no one could do as good of a job as you, and meeting the highest standards as an individual. While the pyramidal structure officially has been eliminated from surgery training programs, it has been noted that career development often remains a steep competition with young surgeons vying for opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in order to navigate “frustrating and stressful periods, trying to find their ‘surgical identity.’” 

It is important to remember that leadership skills, like creating an anastomosis, take proper instruction and deliberate practice. 

Recognizing that surgeons are naturally called upon to be leaders in increasingly complex, team-based environments, a larger emphasis has been placed on fostering leadership capabilities for the current era at all levels. It is important to remember that leadership skills, like creating an anastomosis, take proper instruction and deliberate practice. Attending a leadership course can be an effective way to learn these skills. It also allows for networking with current and future leaders to gain their perspective. Yet, simply attending a course is not enough. To gain the most benefit, you must prepare to be an active participant, work to enhance your skills while there, and be determined to continue to affect change when you return home.  

The following are some suggestions to optimize your experience. 

What to Bring to a Leadership Course

An Open Mind
Go with the understanding that you are there to learn and be pushed outside of your comfort zone. If you already knew everything, you wouldn’t need to attend the course. Therefore, be open to what the organizers and invited leaders have created for you. Be willing to consider new concepts and be receptive to diverse views and ideas. An accepting mentality will prevent you from ignoring or disregarding ideas that are different from your current frame of reference. 
 

Bring an enthusiasm for team growth to the course and it will be much more beneficial. 

A Desire to Change
You made the decision to attend the course, presumably because you wanted to be a better leader. But being a leader, especially early in your career, requires shifting from goals centered on personal achievement to promoting the work and success of others. Bring an enthusiasm for team growth to the course and it will be much more beneficial. 

A Commitment to Actively Participate
Surgeons learn by doing. We are active by nature. Yet many of us become introverted when placed in new surroundings or with unfamiliar people. Resist the urge to be a passive bystander. Fully engage in all aspects of the course, including large and small group discussions, activities, and networking events. You never know when you may impress your next partner or department chair.  

What to Take Away from a Leadership Course

A Dedication to Practice Your New Skills
Whether it is listening to understand or being more assertive in large groups, find opportunities to demonstrate and hone your new leadership abilities. Formally set leadership goals at the start of each rotation (for trainees) or academic year (for faculty). Actively seek feedback from peers, senior residents, partners, and chiefs. Returning home from a course and falling back into your old routine will stunt your leadership growth potential. Leverage what you learned and put it into practice.  

Remember that everyone at home was working while you were gone. They did not just have the same amazing time learning how to be a leader. You must work to recruit others to help you affect change.

An Understanding that Others May Be Resistant to Change
This may be the most important takeaway, particularly if you’ve had a life-altering epiphany at the course. Remember that everyone at home was working while you were gone. They did not just have the same amazing time learning how to be a leader. You must work to recruit others to help you affect change. Be patient and considerate with those who do not fully support your efforts. Use your new leadership skills to create a team that can assist you in achieving the desired outcome. 

A Commitment to Continued Professional Development    
Becoming an effective leader is a long process; one that likely is never really complete. Understand that you will have successes and failures at every step. Leadership is like surgery—if it were easy, everyone would do it. Be determined in your efforts to enhance your leadership abilities. Also remember that your career is a marathon and not a sprint. Periodically take stock of what you have achieved. Celebrate the small wins and learn from failures so you can see them coming in the future and prepare accordingly. During times of slow progress, do not get frustrated and remember why you wanted to be a leader in the first place. 

Good Luck!       

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

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