EXTRA: A Human President


Leonard Zwelling

It’s going to be all right.

That’s the message that I distilled from Dr. Peter Pisters’ town hall on September 27 at MD Anderson, his first address to the collective Anderson community since being named president.

I came hopeful. I was not disappointed.

For forty-five minutes Dr. Pisters introduced himself to the greater MD Anderson community and did it with polish, aplomb, humility, humor, and most of all competence.

He stood in front of the room with no obvious notes although he did have a set of PowerPoint slides to guide his presentation. He started by thanking his two immediate predecessors who, in a moment of Shakespearean justice and Biblical retribution, sat in the front of the auditorium watching a real expert show them how it’s done. He also thanked Dr. Hicks and his team for carrying the ball forward under the most trying of circumstances.

The title slide had the sun rising over MD Anderson. It was a “new dawn” said Dr. Pisters, a phrase used by Grace Slick on the Sunday of Woodstock as Jefferson Airplane took the stage. In the next minutes, Dr. Pisters made it quite clear that like the Airplane he was urging the gathered to address the challenges he faced “together” with him.

Dr. Pisters started by reviewing the fact that the process by which he was selected was transparent, even if his identity as a finalist was kept confidential so that it did not undermine his ability to perform the job he still has in Canada.

He then placed the entire auditorium in the palm of his hand with a single sentence. He wanted to “learn about MD Anderson.” He was not here to tell the faculty and staff what to do but to lead them to accomplish the most they can by learning what those aspirations are.

He then humanized himself with pictures of him, his family and his dogs at various stages of their development. He also made it clear he had married someone who knew more than he did in medical school. You gotta love a guy like that!

He also displayed his bona fides without bravado or hubris. He is clearly an accomplished surgeon and clinical investigator, but also has a masters degree from Harvard and may currently have a job bigger than the one he is about to assume. He is the CEO of a health system in Canada with $2.2 billion in revenue and over 5 million square feet of space.

He then demonstrated that he really understands his new job as well. He talked about an “organizational compact” based on “purpose, values and principles.” What a refreshing concept! And then, in what I considered a brilliant analogy he said, we will “rewrite the source code for the operating system of the organization.” Right on!

And I believe that he can do it given that he most recently adjusted his own organization in Toronto to absorb a 4 to 5 % increase in patient volume with no increase in budget. He believes fund raising is a team effort and that commercialization is an important part of the revenue stream available to academic centers—but it is not the most important one.

He continued by telling the audience what he has learned about leading a large organization. He said people are any organization’s most important asset. He believes in shared governance and wants to move “decision making closer to the front lines.” He is willing to manage in an “environment of ambiguity,” a welcome admission when compared with the certainty espoused by the past president. And he understands the essential need to communicate with clarity. He surely did that himself.

He is a leader with a moral compass making values-based decisions with a philosophy of servant leadership. He recognizes that those he appoints must share these attributes if they, he, and the organization are to be successful.

He will start to explore soon. He will be back for the Board of Visitors meeting in November and start on December 1.

Then came the true cherry on top.

“I don’t know everything about MD Anderson,” he averred.

He was met with a standing ovation. It was well-deserved.

What I saw was the anti-Ron–a funny, polished, humble, yet truly accomplished academic surgeon as ready for the job of leading MD Anderson as anyone could possibly be. The Regents clearly did well in seeing the error of their previous choices and the need to break away from the classical mold of a leader emerging from a laboratory for an institution so founded on patient care.

In the end, Dr. Pisters drew an apt analogy to a World Series winning baseball team needing to be comprised of many interacting players that all bring special skills to the team, but only with the careful blending of those skills will the team triumph.

I think MD Anderson has a great new captain. Play ball!

Leonard Zwelling