KNOWING WHEN TO WALK AWAY

Knowing When To Walk Away

By

Leonard Zwelling

         My professional career is filled with errors. Many people
say they have no regrets about decisions they have made in their lives. Not me.
I have regretted lots of things I have done and said.

Early
on, I simply said what I was thinking. This is never a good idea without a fair
amount of thought first about the consequences of honesty or what one perceives to be honesty. Life is not Jeopardy.
Fast answers usually have no rewards and many are wrong. As we all know,
honesty is overrated anyway. I am quite sure I know what a lie is, but I am
less sure I know what honesty is. 
Factual? Emotional? Spiritual? So the best I was able to come up with to
tamp down the number of mistakes I made by speaking “honestly” was to develop
some degree of mindfulness which is a fancy term for thinking about what you do
or say before you do or say it. Still working on this.

My
next big error was repeated bouts of arrogance. I had a friend and famous
medical oncologist named Dan Longo with whom I trained. He named a disease
after himself. Longo’s Syndrome—microcephaly with arrogance. He didn’t mean he
had it (he did not). He just was the first to give it a name.

I
was never guilty of a whole lot of microcephaly, but arrogance—ooh boy! The
Duke internship, the NCI fellowship, 7 years of tutelage with Kurt Kohn and an
hour with the Leukemia Service of MD Anderson all helped chip away at my arrogance.
Again, like speaking my mind, I am not cured of this, but perhaps in a solid
partial remission.

That
brings me to my third kind of huge error and it’s one that I continue to make to
this day. I simply cannot say it any better than my boss Margaret Kripke both
said and did.

“Leave
the party when you are still having fun.”

Margaret
did exactly that when she retired from Anderson in 2007, still very active and
very engaged, but she had had enough of being Chief Academic Officer. MD
Anderson is much worse for her having left, but I suspect she is much better as
she is currently leading the science wing of CPRIT. What Margaret did that I
continually fail to do is perceive when it is time to walk away.

Of
course that line comes from the Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler where: he knows
when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away and run. Notice there is no line in there
about waiting around until you get pushed. That has been my recurrent error.

The
most notable error of this type that I made was not completely resigning as a
VP in June of 2004 when I relinquished oversight of the clinical research
infrastructure to Dr. Markman.  I had
worn out my welcome with the faculty and surely with Dr. Mendelsohn.  I just should have walked away. Instead, I
tried to carve out a job from a shrinking piece of administrative driftwood and
eventually Dan Fontaine set me and my toothpick office adrift in the Sea of
Realignment.

I
just did it again at Legacy. Once I realized the situation I had gotten myself
into (admittedly not the one I had signed up for), I should have just walked
away instead of getting angry and frustrated and not being able to make any
progress advancing the agenda of the physicians for whom I worked and who
worked for me.

Walking
away is important. It does not equal failure (part of my disordered thinking
was that to me, it did).

I
think Hamas may have walked away albeit a bit late. My understanding is that
they are now part of a PLO delegation negotiating with Israel in Egypt. The
rockets have stopped and so has the death and destruction caused by the IDF.
But everyone knew from the beginning that the IDF would not walk away and would
not tolerate the rockets and tunnels.  If
you were the PM of Israel, would you? Me, neither.

That
brings us to my final case, the leadership of MD Anderson. When the heck are
they going to walk away? Answer—NEVER!

There
is more than ample reasons for the current leaders of MD Anderson to take a
hike, but they won’t. After all, for them things are going swimmingly even if
not for you. As long as that leadership has the legitimacy given it by the
Regents and Chancellor and the acquiescence of the faculty through inaction,
why should it leave? (Constant complaining by the faculty should never be
confused with overcoming inaction. Overcoming inaction would be a no confidence
vote by the Faculty Senate.)

My
good friend Fred Becker always said that “the leopard doesn’t change his spots
until he hears the furrier coming.” There are only two furriers around to trim
the hairy nonsense going on at the top of Pickens. One group is in Austin and
in disarray at least for another 6 months otherwise known as the pre-Zero Dark
Thirty period of UT by the optimistic faculty of MD Anderson. (Go SEALS!) The other group is
that faculty right here in Houston—still holding them. Some smart ones have
folded and others have run.

And where are you in this game? Are you a player
or just bluffing? And as to whether or not you want to play, you’ve already
anted up.

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