How can we aim to be GREAT?

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October 30, 2013

I’m at a national pulmonary meeting in Chicago. I know you don’t want the details of the lectures I’ve been to for the past 4 days, but there is one talk you would have enjoyed. Each year, for the opening session, a non-medical person is invited who can energize the attendees and provide some inspiration.

I arrived the afternoon before the conference and treated myself to some time to just roam around. I didn’t have enough time to actually visit a museum, but some of my quick incidental findings are below. In the Water Tower, there was a digital photo exhibit Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. I didn’t understand the title at first but later realized that the photos were taken in New Harmony, Indiana, the former site of two utopian communities. To borrow a description from the brochure, my favorite piece, included below, showed, “…a mood emanating in gray skies, encroaching rain, an almost palpable hush.” It was so real – I sensed the moisture and felt like I was there. The other photos below were outside the Museum of Contemporary Art and at an artistic outdoor tribute to fallen firefighters. We can’t appreciate them enough.

So much for free time – I’m here for a conference. At the opening session, I had the good fortune of hearing Jim Collins, who is author of Good to Great, and multiple other books that examine why some companies don’t just succeed, but achieve superior performance. He was tasked with helping us apply this to the changing environment of medicine.

For years, he studied what makes a great leader – i.e. what defines someone who can take a company from good to great. Let’s start with his definition of ‘leadership’ – when people follow when they have the option to not follow. There are many good leaders who are energetic, charismatic, are driven, etc, but there are only some who are truly exceptional. So what makes some stand out? Is it their personality? No, he said, some great leaders have NO personality. He said it’s humility – they inspire people to follow a cause; they don’t make their leadership about themselves. Once organized and energized, these groups can work together and pursue the cause even in the absence of the leader. That’s the highest level of leadership!

He went on to discuss how to get through difficult situations, where there is chaos and you lack control. The way to inject some positive force is by helping those around you deal with that exact situation, like a former POW he described who moved forward better than others by helping his co-prisoners and had a vision for the future. Those who survive the best are those who help others cope and look forward to using the experience to benefit others.

He advises, in a bad situation, don’t ignore the ‘brutal facts’ – the cacophony, speed of change, lack of control, lack of knowledge about when the chaos will end. Accept them and deal with them – be optimistic but also realistic. Creating a fantasy that ‘this will be over by a certain date’ makes coping with the situation worse, each time that date passes and you’re still mired in uncertainty. Now it’s starting to sound more like medicine in 2013.

Recently, while speaking to physicians, Collins realized that many of them had no energy when discussing the chaos in the current policy change. Their energy was evident when they talked about caring for patients and training young doctors. His advice to us – keep your core values, do what you love, but be willing to adjust your practices to pursue your values. We physicians know that change has to occur in medicine. We will need to adapt while we keep our love of patient care front and center.

We, perhaps better than others, realize that we don’t know what tomorrow may bring. Stuff happens. So what can all of us do now?? Aim to be useful, not ‘successful’. You will feel the best if you make an impact on other people. You don’t need to change the world – the positive impact on your mood and outlook can be altered by helping even a few individuals. Sounds like a win-win.

As in several other examples, Collins said good is the enemy of great. You can be lulled into being satisfied with “the good life”, but go for the great life – a totally different concept. Your own happiness and the happiness of those around you depend on it!