By Dr Hercules Kollias
In my parallel careers, clinical and corporate, surgical assistant and executive leadership specialist, I have come to realise just how many principles of leadership I was exposed to as a doctor, and the unusual and deep insights I was privy to, that translated into the executive space, and that now form the basis of some of my most reliable and time-honoured leadership teachings.
Here are 15 of those insights into leadership I learned from assisting in surgery. I thought I would share them as they flow logically in the experience of a patient who is being prepared for surgery, from start to finish.
REFERRAL TO A SURGEON
Leadership Insight 1 | Marketing, Influence And Persuasion
For there to be an operation, there must be a patient. For there to be a patient, there must be some way for them to find out about the surgeon. In the medical world, this happens through referral. Is it any different in the business world? Of course not. Dr Cialdini’s work on persuasion and influence shows us that reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking someone, and social consensus are all important subconscious and even conscious triggers. “You have to see this surgeon [social consensus]. He’s such a likeable fellow [liking someone/social consensus] and a brilliant surgeon who really knows his stuff [authority]. All of the patients I’ve sent there before are so happy with their results [social consensus]. He’s usually booked months ahead [scarcity]. Should I try and see if I can squeeze you in a little earlier? [liking someone]”
Q – Who do you know who would publicly (or even privately) say, “That person is the real deal. They are an incredible leader. You would be lucky to be part of their organisation and under their leadership. Every person I know who has worked in that organisation loves it, and can’t believe their luck that an opening was actually available. Heck, I’d take any job in there just to be part of it.”
Leadership Insight 2 | Personal Brand Recognition
As a medical student — a long time ago now, I think Hippocrates was in my year — we learned something that surprised me about visits to the doctor. A longitudinal study asked patients (decades later) what they remembered about their visits. Their condition? No. Their symptoms? No. What the doctor was wearing? Yes! Was the doctor ‘nice’? Yes! Interesting. Every organisation has 2 marketing departments branding them. The first — the one that costs them a fortune — struggles to find ways to create the ‘face’ the public sees. The second — the one that could cost a fortune if not checked — is the face the public actually sees or wants to see, a face that looks like an annoying kid found your perfect promo shot and drew horns and a goatee on it. In any interaction between humans, where there is a power differential, where one needs something the other one has, always assume that people who need your help will see the horns and the goatee they suspect are there before they ever see your real face. Don’t get angry. Don’t judge. Don’t complain. A surgeon needs to manage the expectations of their referrers. Leaders need to manage the expectations of the people who follow them.
Q – In a short statement, how would someone describe your personal leadership ‘brand’? When people think of you, what instantly comes to mind? If no one was watching, and they had a marker, what would they draw on your perfectly positioned promo shot?
THE PREPARATION PROTOCOL
Leadership Insight 3 | Understanding Process
Could you imagine, if a person just showed up to the operating theatre, off the street, and someone said, “You look like you need an operation? Why don’t you hop on the table?“ As funny as this sounds, and as ridiculous as it would be, you might be surprised (or not) to discover that some people treat mere milestones, or events as if they are the entire process. Just as there are a pre-operative phase, a perioperative phase and a post-operative phase for any surgical procedure, so too for any business or strategic or managerial procedure. Even a sales pitch is always preceded by relationship building and follow up after the pitch has been made. A pitch without a relationship, just on its own, gets lost in the judgments of the target listener. “They only want something from me!”
Q – How much time do you spend doing the small things that make future important conversations easier? How many steps have been thought through and completed before you get to the step that can make the difference you’re looking for?
Leadership Insight 4 | Numbers
I remember very early in my medical career, while I was still a medical student, interviewing a patient who had complications of diabetes. They were a preoperative patient who had been scheduled for a below-knee leg amputation as a result of extreme uncontrolled diabetes. As I sat by the bedside, I felt an increasing sense of frustrated sadness. I couldn’t believe how unfair this was. This poor person was giving me a history of “always doing the right thing”, “always taking my medication, but it never did the trick”, “years of checking my blood sugars, and for what?”. I went to my consultant to debrief. I had hardly taken a seat in his office when I began to recite the painful story of this unfortunate patient. He watched and listened with patience. And then he asked me one question. “Have you looked at the patient’s tests?” No, I thought. I have spent over an hour getting a detailed history. When I checked the tests, I realised that the numbers told a very different story from the one that I had spent an hour writing down. The numbers told the story of a person who had neglected their health for decades, had never been compliant with any treatment, and rarely took any blood sugars to check their progress. I couldn’t reconcile the numbers with my experience of the patient. He didn’t seem to be deceitful. It didn’t seem like he was lying on purpose. And then it dawned on me. This was the story he truly believed. His disconnection from the truth, or his denial, became apparent. I realised that people can lie to themselves first, and then inadvertently to others. A complete set of numbers never does.
Q – How will you know the numbers that tell the story of your organisation and your leadership? Which numbers are they? Why have you chosen those?