‘Sift through the Noise’ and Reach Your Full Leadership Potential

By Melanie A. Edwards, MD | May 3, 2022

Cardiothoracic surgeons are natural leaders, yet rising to one’s full leadership potential requires an intentional approach to the development and continued refinement of core leadership skills.

It is very easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of information available on leadership, from books to blog articles, to podcasts and webinars. It seems everyone is an expert with a myriad of opinions around how best to succeed. 

In order to sift through the noise, a similar approach can be taken to that of honing the nuances of an operation where each surgeon uses a combination of techniques learned in training with adjustments, or even pivots over time as experience is accrued. Also, similar to surgical practice is the concept of continuous improvement, and while some leadership training is immersive and comprehensive, the real work is done independently, and over the course of your career.

Your Leadership Identity

The foundation of leadership development rests on your leadership identity. Irrespective of position, each person must decide for themselves how they chose to interact with colleagues, team members, and trainees. Much of how you present yourself is based on core personality traits and habits, many of which may be unconscious. Fortunately, nothing is predestined, and anyone can evolve with attention, effort, and commitment. 

Start with an honest self-assessment to pinpoint areas for more focused attention and where you could be an asset based on your passions and natural abilities. Unbiased external feedback is critical to identify the blind spots you have regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Take time to list your most important core values and write down a personal mission statement. Then, filter any leadership advice through the lens of what is authentic to your values and mission, and who you seek to become as a leader. 

Set Your Goals

While some leadership opportunities are not anticipated, having a clear vision of where you are going is essential to informing how you spend the precious resource of time in the pursuit of leadership development. Set short and long-term goals for the positions(s) to which you aspire and outline the necessary milestones needed to reach them. Likewise, outline a plan for leadership skill acquisition and implementation with measurable targets centered around the processes you decide to pursue.

Engage with Mentors

Look for examples of leadership styles that you wish to model and actively engage with those individuals. Most senior leaders have developed through a combination of experience and formal learning opportunities, and can provide advice on lessons learned, while suggesting resources that they have found valuable. In doing so, be mindful to select and develop those traits that are congruent with your own determined leadership identity.

Learn Core Leadership Skills

Common areas for skill development include communication, time management, team building, finance, change management, and personal development. 

Leadership courses can assist to create the framework off which to build defined skills and are great opportunities for networking. Many professional organizations, including The Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS), the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, and the American College of Surgeons sponsor leadership courses. 

Awards are available through The Thoracic Surgery Foundation (TSF) for the Levi-Watkins Innovation and Leadership Development Scholarship. The TSF Alley-Sheridan Scholarship will partially cover costs associated with the Leadership Program at Brandeis University. The Association of American Medical Colleges also hosts multi-day seminars targeted to early and mid-career women and minorities.

Many great treatises on leadership abound and cover all areas of leadership development. Examples include:

  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Start with Why by Simon Sinek
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Similar breadth exists in the podcast space with the TED Business, Dare to Lead, and Leadership Coaching series. In addition, The Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review have extensive online content libraries. Webinars such as the STS Leadership Series will supplement self-study and provide varied perspectives on a given topic. While not truly self-study, executive coaching can be valuable, but is often expensive. Lastly, those seeking a more structured approach can consider an advanced degree in health administration or business.

Leadership Development Strategy 

Regardless of the methods used, consistent work on leadership development is invaluable. Doing so allows you to be prepared to rise to any leadership challenge that may present. Schedule regular self-assessments to check in on the areas in which you are excelling and those that need more work. Request feedback from your colleagues and leadership to identify areas for further improvement. Make your leadership development a core part of your career progression and request the resources needed from your division/department. Leadership positions abound, but to become a great leader requires dedicated attention to developing the skills needed to succeed. Most importantly, enjoy the journey.