Gravitas Vs. Photon

Gravitas Vs. Photon


Leonard Zwelling

One of my favorite descriptions of anyone in academic medicine whose reputation exceeded his abilities and accomplishments was that he or she was a photon—all energy and no mass. Photons have no gravitas and leaders need to have gravitas. This is well elucidated in the attached op-ed from The Wall Street Journal on February 14 by Joseph Epstein. Epstein was talking about President Biden. And, I agree. I am never impressed with Biden and he’s gotten worse with age. At least when he was bullying Anita Hill he seemed to have some political weight. Now, he seems like a bumbling, dressed up elderly gentleman who mumbles platitudes and tells stories about his childhood, that illustrate nothing. In the end, Biden is a product of a life in the Senate—making deals, pumping hands, slapping backs and inappropriately smelling the hair of the nearest female. He’s no chief executive as the past year has demonstrated.

Much like the trust discussed in a recent blog, gravitas is a necessary attribute of a successful leader. It is my argument, that many leaders in all fields of endeavor lack gravitas and as such are poor influencers of the behavior of others as they are both poor models and poor commanders. War time generals need to have gravitas if men and women are going to die for them. So do NFL quarterbacks. Does anyone have more gravitas than Tom Brady?

There was no one who I knew in my many years at MD Anderson who had greater gravitas than Dr. LeMaistre and Dr. Kripke, both of whom I considered friends, mentors, and exemplary leaders.

Dr. LeMaistre took me to Austin early in my administrative career to explain to the Board of Regents what had happened with one of MD Anderson’s clinical investigators whose research trial had been stopped by the FDA with a warning letter and who took it upon himself to adjudicate this in the press. I followed Dr. LeMaistre around the UT System buildings like a puppy. He was the master at politics. He knew everyone—even the parking lot attendants from his days as UT Chancellor. It was an easy sell to the Regents that we had the situation under control. All Dr. LeMaistre ever had to do was stand up at a meeting and the room would hush and he would make his points with the room hanging on every word. Dr. LeMaistre had gravitas.

Dr. Kripke expressed her gravitas differently. First, she was usually the smartest person in the room. Second, she was a master at interpersonal diplomacy. She tried to negotiate a solution to any problem, but was more than ready to make a decision when one had to be made. She also was the absolute best at handling her president, John Mendelsohn, who longed to exude gravitas, but only did sometimes and not after his run-in with federal regulators, Congress, and the SEC over ImClone and Enron. It was Dr. Kripke who was the chief engineer of space, slots and money when it came to research and Dr. Mendelsohn counted on her to be the face of gravitas with the faculty. And she was.

Since then, gravitas has been in short supply in the upper reaches of MD Anderson for many years now.

Dr. DePinho was great at hubris and less at gravitas because he tended to undermine his own unique vision by being plagued with accusations of nepotism, self-dealing and conflict of interest. That’s not gravitas. Excess spending is not a sign of gravitas, but rather of insecurity and poor judgment.

Dr. Pisters longs to have that gravitas as is obvious in his appearances before the faculty. However, those appearances are characterized by 50-minute canned slide sessions and the answering of only pre-submitted questions for ten minutes. That’s nonsense and not indicative of gravitas at all.

The people of the United States long for gravitas in their leaders. It has been years since President George H. W. Bush displaying gravitas occupied the Oval Office.

The faculty and staff of MD Anderson also long for a leader with gravitas. Unfortunately, that desire may not attain satisfaction—the absence of desire—until the next time.

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