October 16, 2019

Leadership pearls from ELAM

I recently had the privilege of being part of a session for the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine  (ELAM) Class of 2020, the latest group to take part in this important and well-recognized fellowship for women leaders. Those of us who were there heard from some amazing teachers, and what follows is a summary of some key learnings from two of them, and their thinking on leadership skills that matter.

First up, we had the real pleasure of hearing from Lilly Marks, Vice President for Health Affairs in the Office of the Chancellor at the University of Colorado Denver. Lilly teaches health system finance in ELAM, and she has been revered for this work for many years.  She said too many wise things to fully recount here, but I’ll offer a few of her quotes, plus a bit of context.  My favorite “Lilly-isms” were:

  • “The role of leadership is to hold up the sky.”  Lilly was speaking about the role of leaders as a buffer from the chaos of large systems, and leaders’ ability to shelter those they work with so they can get the operational work of the organization done.
  • “She who lives by crystal balls is doomed to eat ground glass.”  Here she was referring to the challenges of trying to project the future in this era of rapid change.  This one made me stop and think about how leaders have to be facile in fluid situations, while maintaining a visionary sense of where an organization is going and how to move it there.
  • “Putting finances and resources to their highest and best use differentiates between mediocrity and excellence.”  Here, Lilly was talking about the role of stewardship and commitment to the greatest possible good.  In this part of her talk, I was reminded that my sense of stewardship really came from her, in my learning from her as a member of the ELAM Class of 2008.  I’ll publicly thank her for that teaching now.
  • “To succeed, you have to be willing to play in traffic.”  This amazing woman, whose career has had zigs and zags like the rest of us (she was a banking professional before turning to academic medicine), told us that we need to be ready to take risks, and be willing to fail as we do so.  This quote is a pithy reminder of that core leadership skill.

Lilly’s talk reminded us of the importance of several key leadership skills:  Supporting and sheltering those who work for us from the vagaries of large systems; the ability to manage and respond to rapid change; the important work of stewardship with integrity; and a willingness to take risks.  It seems to me that she could write a book.  Rest assured that, if she ever does, I’ll be telling you about it.

The second speaker I’d like to highlight is Archana Chaterjee, MD, PhD.  Archie is a classmate of mine from ELAM 2008, and she serves as the senior associate dean for faculty development at the University of South Dakota.  She has become a real leader on the topic of life and work alignment.  She regularly teaches this material at ELAM, and has a helpful framework for us all to use. 

Archie spoke about looking for things that move us into our “learning zone,” either low-risk areas where we have low skills, or areas where we have a lot of skill but the risks and stakes are high.  How do you know that you’re in the learning zone?  The task will be something that is new, different and challenging to you, and you are taking some risk, but able to manage well.  And she suggests that we always look for the “four-way win.”  In this framework, whatever we say “yes” to should be a win in all of these dimensions:

  • work and career
  • home and family
  • community and society
  • self

If we use this as a filter for what we say “yes” to, we are better able to filter, and we can focus on saying what I call “the strategic yes.” Archie gives us the strategy for doing so.

ELAM is one of the many leadership programs in which I get to participate.  It’s my hope to share with you pearls of wisdom from these events, and that you will share those that you encounter in your learning as well.

Do these ideas resonate with you?

I’d be very interested in how you put them to use.  Feel free to share in the comments or on social media.

Last updated October 16, 2019

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