Leonard Zwelling

In this op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on February 23 by Harvard senior Julie Hartman, she complains that most of her classmates have followed the Covid restrictions imposed by Harvard like obedient sheep whether or not those rules made sense. She bemoans the behavior of her classmates and attributes it to their life long striving to get ahead by being good boys and girls, padding their resumes, and striving for the next credential to make the next step up the ladder. In high school, it was to get to Harvard. At Harvard it was to get into the best graduate school or best Wall Street firm.

Most of us in academic medicine live lives like that—going from gold star to gold star, from grades to SATs, to the best universities and the best academic job where we compete for grants, papers, lab space and glory. I should know. That was me.

I am a little less critical of others than Ms. Hartman for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the gold star chase served me well for many years. Until it didn’t–because the gold star chase doesn’t turn you into a leader and I can prove it.

The MD Anderson presidency is considered one of the top leadership jobs in all of academic oncology, a real gold star. The past presidents of Anderson have all been quite different, but leadership was a common facet of all of their job descriptions. Some like R. Lee Clark and Mickey LeMaistre embodied leadership. John Mendelsohn, one of the ultimate gold star chasers and a Harvard grad, was a glorious leader for about five years until ImClone and Enron demonstrated his poor judgment in associates and a certain, unhealthy attraction to wealth. The gold of the gold stars got the best of him. Ron DePinho actually had all the tickets to be a great leader except he also had two that undid him—a lack of empathy and cornucopia of narcissism. All he dreamed about was gold stars for his wife and himself. How did that work out? Dr. Pisters seems wholly uncomfortable with leadership as he surrounds himself with mediocrity and makes unilateral decisions without consulting with the faculty. He may not even care about gold stars, but certainly sought the MD Anderson presidency. Why? No one knows. What is he aiming to do beside be President? It’s a mystery.

In a sense, Ms. Hartman is right. Those people who display great leadership are the ones who do not go along with the status quo. That was certainly R. Lee Clark and Mickey LeMaistre. A cancer center on the edge of downtown Houston? Cancer prevention as its own discipline? Who would have thought?

But, in all fairness to Ms. Hartman, going along with the way things are, as she accuses her classmates of doing, is a good way to survive. Asking the MD Anderson faculty to step out of its comfort zone and make clear to Dr. Pisters that he is not the king of MD Anderson, but the President, and with that role comes certain required consultations with faculty about policy changes he wishes to make, will not attract many. It’s safe to be quiet. Heck, it’s even lucrative. And if you think it’s lucrative for the faculty, imagine how lucrative it is for the various vice presidents to go along with what Dr. Pisters dictates.

Ms. Hartman is right. Most people are sheep or, as I wrote recently, cookies. What MD Anderson needs is more cookie cutters and angry shepherds. In this case, there are not enough chefs or shepherds in the MD Anderson kitchen. MD Anderson faculty need to step up, don an apron, and lean in just as Ms. Hartman wishes her Harvard classmates had done.

4 thoughts on “Sheep”

  1. Gerard J Ventura

    Leadership? The essentially forgotten Gordon Zubrod MD. Here’s a link, including a brief memoir he wrote only for family, called ‘Staircase of Surprise’, made it public after his death. It’s a fascinating read of constant struggle on matters mundane to profound.
    On a personal note, I was astounded to learn that I not only grew up in the same home town as his- Baldwin, NY- but as a small boy also played on the same spiral staircase, where my best friend lived.

  2. Power does corrupt some leaders of large health systems. Some physicians and surgeons are extraordinary in the trenches but transform to greed and incompetence when they ascend to the Executive Office. There is a slippery slope that one can descend if one’s moral fiber and management skills weaken under the allure of huge salaries, power over others, and fringe benefits. Even the spouses and close associates embrace the entitlements.
    What continues to fascinate me is how some self-righteous physician executives think that they are fooling the “field hands” in the clinics and operating rooms. They don’t fool us, but their behavior can demoralize an institution and diminish the higher calling of patient care, research and education.
    I agree with your call for faculty to stand up and fight a little harder for what they know is right.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *