Along with resigning as chairman of the department of hematology and medical oncology at the Cleveland Clinic (), I am also resigning as editor in chief of Hematology News. In contrast to the drawn out process of choosing the next department chairman, however, I was in the enviable position of being able to hand pick my successor as editor in chief. I am proud to announce that Ifeyinwa (Ify) Osunkwo, MD, MPH, will be the new editor in chief of Hematology News. Dr. Osunkwo’s new perspective and energy will guide the further development of Hematology News for the benefit of our readers.
As editor in chief, I have had the opportunity to write essays for Hematology News that reflect my experience as a leader in an academic medical department. By doing so, I was trying to summarize some of what I learned along my career path. In my final essay, I want to direct some of these nuggets of wisdom directly to aspiring leaders who are closer to the beginning of their career journey than I am.
My junior colleagues are very interested in developing their careers to maximize opportunities in leadership, and I have coached many to try to understand that the path to leadership is not always straight, may be difficult, and does not always end comfortably. While the goal may seem to be in one direction, the path may lead to another. That is what has happened to me.
I did not seek to be Chairman. The opportunity came to me while I was busy doing other things. As I expressed in an earlier editorial (), those who are diligent about their work without actively trying to rise through the leadership hierarchy are the ones who seem to rise more often.
Ambition is overrated. The ambitious find it harder to accept failure, and some degree of failure is likely. In his book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” Father Richard Rohr suggests that failure is required in order to mature from someone whose life centers on self to someone whose self centers on life.
Junior faculty tend to focus on self. They try to excel at whatever they attempt as they always have. Whether that is teaching, performing research, or treating patients, they try to be the absolute best teacher, researcher, or practitioner they can be. Many try to do all three well. Rare are those who can perfectly balance all three endeavors. Tension results, both at work and at home. Here is where failure often happens. The student disappoints, the paper is rejected, the grant isn’t funded, the patient relapses, and the family wishes you were home more. This confluence of difficulties challenges our concept of self. Maybe we aren’t perfect after all. Perhaps for the first time, failure looms.
In my experience, the usual solution to the possibility of failure is a desire to reduce patient care responsibilities. Academic faculty cherish their protected time and usually look for ways to increase it rather than to balance it (). Academic careers require thick CVs, not satisfied patients. A talk on leukemia at a major conference is more valued than talking to a patient about their leukemia. The cognitive dissonance between what we think is important and what is actually important challenges our personal sense of identity. The resulting burnout represents the necessary failure required to then mature spiritually and reprioritize our ambitions.
On some level, then, the path most of us are on is the time-honored – but painful – journey that must be traveled in order to attain peace.
I also recommend planning a career path with quality work, not a future title, as the goal. Quality work implies measurable objectives. For teachers, work could be measured by teaching scores and student accomplishments. For researchers, work could be measured by published papers, grants received, and invited lectures. For practitioners, work could be measured by outcomes, particularly patient-reported outcomes. Once work is measured, continuous improvements can be made and tracked. Highly reliable teachers, researchers, and practitioners who value quality work will be rewarded both personally and professionally ().
There is a difference, however, between trying to be the best and trying to improve. The former implies competition with someone else, while the latter involves only one person. Competition can be motivating, but can also undermine interpersonal relationships while causing unhealthy behaviors like overworking and sleep deprivation. If the position sought requires selfish and destructive behaviors, it is not a position worth seeking ().
By doing quality work – not just more work – leadership positions will inevitably follow. Once a position is obtained, the work increases because a leader is now responsible for others. There are some easy-to-learn tools that can help with that responsibility. I find them very useful for helping colleagues work through interpersonal struggles and resource issues (; ).
Success as a leader is harder to measure, but many institutions employ engagement surveys similar to job satisfaction surveys. Leadership scores are generally accurate reflections of leader effectiveness, as are 360-degree surveys of those who work with you. Of course, being a leader also means holding those in your charge accountable for their behaviors (; ). Leadership is no place for someone unwilling to hold crucial and difficult conversations with colleagues.
Success, of course, begets success and additional leadership roles are offered to successful leaders. Meanwhile, the work you started in order to get to the leadership position will probably need to be scaled back as excellence in teaching, research, patient care, and leadership is daunting, difficult to manage, and threatens work-life balance. The ability to say “no” is a valuable skill to learn as leadership roles increase.
Even though none of us work alone, academic medicine generally rewards only the individual. Yet, the camaraderie developed over time working together helps balance work and life roles. To advance as a leader, learning to work in a team is a critical ability. There is a science behind teamwork and aspiring leaders should acquaint themselves with it (). While you may be rewarded as an individual, your success will be dependent on your ability to work on a team.
Finally, at least for clinicians, our obligation to our patients largely supersedes all our other commitments. Knowing the most, or being the most technically gifted, is not what patients value. They value empathy and relationships. We need to develop care designed for them, not us (). We need to communicate with them on their terms, not ours ( ). We must walk with patients on their path, not ours. A patient-centered approach to care and career can take you far. Good luck on your journey.
Dr. Kalaycio is the outgoing editor in chief of Hematology News. He is a hematologist-oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute. Contact him at.