The President’s Speech

The President’s Speech


Leonard Zwelling

Everyone present at MD Anderson in 2011 remembers the early speeches of Dr. DePinho. He was going to cure five cancers in five years with his Moon Shot strategy and he had the video to prove it. Fortunately, most of the learned gathered in the auditorium saw through this nonsense and knew such a goal was ludicrous in the extreme. However, those same gathered largely remained silent for fear of angering the new leader and not getting a piece of the largesse each hoped to come to his or her projects. This too was ludicrous but a faculty member can dream, right?

Now all of these years later, Dr. DePinho got no closer to curing cancer than the last guy did (and maybe actually did more harm). The faculty can be excused for expecting a great deal and a great deal different from the first speech of the new president.

In the last few blogs, I focused on the substantive matters with which the new president will need to be engaged. But what of the more ethereal, yet every bit as important, subjective issues facing new leadership—trust, integrity, and sincerity.

When the new leader of a major cancer center talks about cures of cancer, his credibility is shot in a matter of minutes. Everyone in cancer research—basic or clinical or population-based—has heard enough promises about the cure being around the corner if some new, usually costly, technology is applied as the new leader sees it, the cure is there to be grabbed. No, it’s not. The nature of cancer is the nature of life itself. We really don’t know which of the many avenues being discovered and pursued everyday will be the one or ones that will turn the tide and really impact the number of cancer deaths. Besides, we already know how to do that if we apply all that we have learned about screening and prevention and diet and exercise and sun exposure and tobacco use. Let’s get everyone in Houston screened for colon cancer who needs it. What impact might that have on the cancer death rate in America’s 4th largest city?

Eschewing any conflicts of interest, self-dealing and nepotism will also go a large way toward cementing the integrity of the new president. During that first speech, Dr. Pisters, open your stock holdings to all. Declare that you have no attachment to big pharma or the biotech industry. Clean up the mess left by your predecessors.

Finally, everyone wants to believe you. You are being met with nothing but good will. Be worthy of the good will. Extend a hand to shared governance and transparency. Explain your decisions. Especially the tough ones. Explain why you hired who you did and hold them accountable for the assignments you give them.

The first speech can be short on specifics and long on atmospherics, but a clear elucidation of what you will do to separate yourself from the legacy of the last two guys would be a giant step in the right direction. Do that on Day 1 and there will probably be better days ahead.

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