To Find Yourself

To Find Yourself


Leonard Zwelling

David Brooks writes in The New York Times on July 29, that you only find out who you are in relation to someone else. “A self exists only in relation to something else.” The late Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said it best. “The self is made of non-self elements.”

I think about this a good deal when I try to face myself. Who am I? I am what I learned from others.

Several years ago at a party, I asked the late MD Anderson president John Mendelsohn whether the newly appointed president Ron DePinho regularly met with him for advice. The answer was that Dr. DePinho did not. This was a grave error by Dr. DePinho as no one ever had a better early leg of a race than did Dr. Mendelsohn in his first five years from 1996 to 2001.

How did Mendelsohn do it?

He listened.

Dr. Mendelsohn traveled to each academic department and spoke with the faculty to ascertain the faculty’s biggest concerns. This led him to rapidly hire exemplary leaders for pathology and biomathematics as both departments needed a reinfusion of horse power and got it.

I raise this only because it seems to me that one of the great mistakes of modern leadership is not using the wisdom of those who came before to inform the way new leaders develop their administrations.

When it was my turn to do this in March of 1995 as the newly appointed Associate Vice President of Clinical and Translational Research (what a mouthful), I spoke with my predecessor, with the then-VP of Research, Dr. Becker, and with every clinical research leader who would talk to me to identify what was most needed (faster protocol approval, faster contract implementation, faculty control over scientific review of protocols before IRB review) and how I could facilitate that. I would have gotten nothing done without their advice and whether my tenure is viewed as successful or not, what ever it was, it was secondary to the advice I received from others.

Why then do MD Anderson presidents seem to feel they have to re-invent the wheel every time they assume the reins of power?

It seems to me that Dr. Pisters has a set of agenda points including the One MD Anderson nonsense that in no way reflects what the faculty views as the way to address the problems they face every day like over-crowded clinics, under-staffed clinics, no time for lunch, no place of their own to grab lunch, and overwhelming administrative burdens from too many on-line trainings, to making sure billing is maximized through the use of the electronic medical record. You want to find the origin of faculty burn-out? Look no further.

I suggest that Dr. Pisters take another spin around the academic departments (if he has completed his first) and find out what is most troubling to the very people who generate the income he so desperately needs. That’s what his predecessor John Mendelsohn did to great success.

The other thing Dr. Mendelsohn did to great success was surround himself with a great team. I cannot say the same for Dr. Pisters or Dr. DePinho for that matter. Thus, Dr. Mendelson was always in the learning mode because he had experienced MD Anderson veterans and newbies helping him solve challenges. The Pisters team seems more likely to have been chosen because they do not push back on anything he wants to do regardless of how wise or unwise that is.

Who you are is a product of who you meet, who you interact with, and who you learn from. Choose those people wisely as they may well determine your success or failure.

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