Good People, Good Organizations

By

Leonard Zwelling

What does good mean when it defines a person?

We usually think of good people as selfless, considerate, polite, respectful and willing to put their own well-being behind that of another fellow human. They are ethical and moral and, of course, law abiding.

It is getting harder to find good people lately, or it least it feels that way.

The latest revelations about sexual harassment that seem to pervade entertainment, sports, politics, journalism, and higher education might suggest that good people are becoming a rarity. Then, of course, one sees the out-pouring of community activism that so characterized the Houston response to Hurricane Harvey and you are encouraged. Good people are plentiful. Perhaps the actions of good people don’t make the news as frequently as the misdeeds of bad people. Good is not as headline grabbing as bad. Social media doesn’t help that as misdeeds are broadcast in the Internet with the viral speed of light. Anyone can be forgiven for feeling discouraged given what the talking heads of cable news keep on the front burner. We, in Houston, know better.

Along with people, organizations can be good or bad. Sure, organizations are made up of people and those people can choose to act to the benefit of others or simply to enrich themselves, but that’s not what I am referring to.

I think that organizations have cultures. Those cultures foster types of behavior. Some organizations expect the best of their people and their workforces epitomize caring and integrity. Others, usually due to a corporate culture that is rapacious and mean-spirited, foster over competitiveness, underhandedness, and self-dealing. Some organizations are about WE. Others are about ME.

Let’s look at one organization in transition now—MD Anderson.

I cannot speak to Anderson before 1984, when I got there.

In 1984 I was struck by many things almost immediately upon my arrival.

First, the people who I met all tried to help me both personally and professionally. These included the other newbies like Drs. Krakoff, Fidler, and Kripke and the more established faculty leaders like Dr. LeMaistre, Dr. Becker and the entire staff of the Physicians’ Referral Service. These were heady days of MD Anderson’s growth as a research powerhouse and clinical research juggernaut. It had already established its leadership role in clinical care under Dr. Clark.

However, this unique and fertile environment came with expectations.

It was a competitive atmosphere, especially in the area of academic medicine, but decorum, for the most part, ruled even when it had to be newly imposed by some of those new leaders. But people helped each other. Everyone was on the team. Few faculty members left for other jobs because there were few better jobs anywhere than being on the faculty of MD Anderson.

I think the transition from Dr. LeMaistre to Dr. Mendelsohn in 1996 went very well. The first five years of the new presidency was another period of exceptional growth. Perhaps too exceptional. All of a sudden, with the elimination of the need for patients to be referred to MD Anderson, came the realization that the pink palace was also a gold mine. MD Anderson became addicted to money. Then came Enron. Then came ImClone. And then…

I believe that in the early 2000s MD Anderson went from being a good organization to being a big one. This is not to say that big organizations cannot be good. They can be. I just believe that MD Anderson made the false choice to become a place where winning trumped integrity, discovery was measured in dollars, and caring was supplanted by the clinic as assembly line. MD Anderson went from being everyone’s second family to the place where we worked.

But, like all organizations, MD Anderson gets another chance. If the federal government can keep trying to get this right (and failing), why not MD Anderson?

I am one of the people that hopes that Dr. Pisters can chart a course for MD Anderson back to goodness. It will not be easy. The place has been on the wrong path for at least fifteen years. It will take much effort and many good people to turn the ship around. It can be done. In Houston, In Washington. Anywhere that good men and women are willing to give it a try.

MD Anderson can get back to goodness if it adheres to its core values and lives them. Everyone. Every day. Little by little. Back to goodness.

Leonard Zwelling