Cookie-Cutters, Cancer and The Ask



       On January 31, Dr. DePinho published an
op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle entitled “It’s time to renew our efforts
in the battle against cancer”. The title alone was shocking. I thought that
fighting cancer and making it history was what was already going on at MD
Anderson, the place he leads. Is it time for more buildings and more hiring?  He can’t believe that a 19,000 person work
force and a $3+ billion annual budget is not enough, can he?

       But that was only the title. The article
was really a well deserved shout out to the Second of Four MD Anderson
Presidents, Dr. Charles (no one calls him that) ‘Mickey’ LeMaistre, a man I
know pretty well. Admittedly, I had to know him for over 20 years before I ever
considered calling him anything but Dr. LeMaistre because for me, he was and
always will be, my MD Anderson President. It was he who hired me, he who
inspired me with the culture of MD Anderson and he who with his wearing of the
tee shirt with the motto of “Fighting Cancer, Now
a Job”, clarified for me why I came to work every day. Under his
watch, if I worked hard, I was fulfilling his charge to me. Under his
successors, if you don’t make cancer history, you have failed.

It was Dr. LeMaistre who engrained in me the
concept that, above all, the patients come first. I can recall very well his
considering the feelings of those patients when deciding the color of the glass
to be used in the new hospital being built on his watch.

       Dr. LeMaistre embodied everything that
was a president and a leader (they don’t necessarily go together). He was polite,
civil, thoughtful, wise, quiet, and a gentleman of the first order. When you accompanied
Dr. LeMaistre on a business trip whether it was to testify before the Board of Regents
or to raise money for Anderson, you learned how to BE MD Anderson, not just
work there. Oh, my word, how things have changed.

Dr. DePinho goes on in his op-ed to discuss
cancer prevention and the huge role Dr. LeMaistre had in convincing America
that tobacco is a carcinogen. It was Mickey’s amazing vision that led to the
development of a full-fledged Cancer Prevention program at Anderson before
anyone else even thought of it. If nothing else, Dr. LeMaistre taught us all what
real leadership looked like.

Dr. DePinho’s article correctly outlines the
need for educating young people on the harms of tobacco. He talks about the
need for better treatments for cancer and ways to detect it earlier when it is
more likely to succumb to our curative intent. Of course, he had to wedge in a
public service announcement about his Moon Shots, the still nebulous collection
of programs to reach his goal of curing cancer. The problem with all of this is
exactly its nebulous nature.

DePinho concludes by asking the public to
join him in completing the work begun by Dr. LeMaistre. Now who could argue
with that?

Me. Why? What does he want his readers to

On Capitol Hill, if a Congressman’s or
Congresswoman’s constituent is given 15 minutes with a member of Congress or the
Congressional staff, the constituent would be most fortunate. A meeting with
the Senate staff may be even shorter. The clock starts when the visitors enter
the staff conference room. After the obligatory niceties, the constituents
and/or the accompanying lobbyist had better get down to business. Why exactly
did they want the appointment? In short, what did they want? What was THE ASK?

In my experience, when I was the staffer at
the meeting, the Ask would turn into a short memo from me to the senior staff
who then might or might not forward it to Senator Enzi. Usually the Ask was to
insert some language in pending legislation that would make the constituent
wealthier or the Ask was to expunge language from a bill that would adversely
affect the constituents’ current revenue stream. Believe me, when money was
involved, the Ask was clear as a bell.

What exactly does Dr. DePinho want those who
read his column to do? I have no idea.

Here is a guy who is so fond of quoting from
the leader who made one of the great asks of all time to the American people:
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your
country”. Yet, he cannot articulate the Ask here.

On the first day of medical school at Duke the
late, great Dr. Syd Osterhout, the man who admitted each of us into Duke, told
us, “At Duke we don’t make cookies, we make cookie cutters.” Forty years later
at my 40th reunion, I saw how right he was. Despite most of my classmates not
being in academia, all have some major role in leadership or education in the
organizations in which they practice.

Perhaps Dr. Harvard can take a page from the
Duke Medical School baking playbook as he attempts once again to learn how to
lead. Don’t be a cookie! Be a cookie cutter. The many Duke people around you
can teach you how.

When you appeal to the public for its
support, it might be a good idea that you Ask for them to do something. It’s
just fine to be the smartest guy in the room, but that’s not leadership.
Leadership is sacrificing yourself so that others can sacrifice for your vision.
But they will need to understand that vision in stark detail for them to
sacrifice their time and money on your behalf. I am not sure how you, Dr.
DePinho, might do this at this point in your tenure after following none of the
behaviors that so characterized Dr. LeMaistre, but you might start by asking
for some help in achieving your vision—what ever it happens to be this week.   

What’s THE ASK?

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