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Surgeon chat sparks leadership lessons for businesses

rbj-engles-sigA friend of mine needed surgery to remove a benign tumor in his pituitary gland.

Like any surgery involving the brain, that’s an operation requiring great precision. The involved parts are small and delicate.

Not long after his successful operation, I visited my friend in the hospital. As luck would have it, the presiding neurosurgeon happened to be in the room. Before the doctor left, I asked him a question: “What qualities contribute to being a good neurosurgeon?”

A surgeon’s reflections

He stopped and thought for a moment, then responded. “You know, I can think of four capacities. The first is athleticism—the fingers. The best neurosurgeons have a sensitive touch and exquisite dexterity. Most of us have this, but some have it more than others. It’s an important feature of being a good surgeon, but not the most important.

“The second capacity is ethics. It’s character that determines whether we wash our hands thoroughly a second time. No one is looking. We’re free to cut corners, but the best surgeons don’t do that. It’s ethics that nudge some of us to double check the X-rays and to call the radiologist if there’s any nagging question. Ethics separates the best surgeons from those who are merely technically sound.”

“The third quality would be the way a surgeon treats the operating room staff—the nurses, assistants and attending physicians. We surgeons have a reputation for thinking that we are gods. Actually, we’re just part of an elite team wherein every member has to be on their game. I’ve found that treating my teammates respectfully keeps the atmosphere calm and focused.

“And the last thing I’d mention is, ‘Just keep learning.’  You can never know everything as a surgeon, but you can always learn more.”

Seeing parallels

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of his off-the-cuff summary. What struck me most was how closely that description lines up with what makes a good leader: task and profession knowledge, ethics, relationship management and continual learning.

A closer look at these four key dimensions of leadership provides an excellent reminder for veteran leaders and a great primer for those new to leadership.

The equivalent of a surgeon’s dexterity is a leader’s task and profession knowledge. I remember many years ago, a trucking company executive told me, “I could go out in our lot and tear apart a truck engine and put it back together again.” That’s a leader who knows his product.

Task knowledge includes subject matter expertise. Leaders need to possess industry knowledge and skill and understand the products and services of their organization. That’s a basic requirement. You have to have it. But, just as physical dexterity is not the most important capability for a surgeon, task management is not the most important dimension of leadership.

Ethical habits

The second capacity is ethics: the way a leader understands what is right and wrong, and a commitment to do what is right.

Ethics comes from a Greek word, ethikos, meaning, “habit.” A leader’s ethics are revealed not so much in beliefs and words, but in habitual behaviors. Take the example of a leader who believes that being authentic is a form of honesty and a good way to behave, yet constantly acts like he is smarter or more competent or more sincere than is accurate. That leader’s ethical measure can be observed in his behavior, more than in his beliefs. Habits reveal ethics.

Since many leadership situations are complex, and easy answers are hard to come by, it’s not always clear what is right and wrong. A big part of living ethically is a leader’s commitment to discernment, the sifting and weighing that (sometimes slowly) produces clarity.

Another vital ethical consideration is imperfection. Each of us can strive to be highly ethical all the time. That’s a noble goal. But what happens when we falter or make poor judgments, or in a moment of weakness, act selfishly? Part of an individual’s ethics is her ability to distinguish a pattern from an episode.

One mistake does not define a life. A leader who is usually on time but occasionally runs late is not the same as a leader who is chronically late. Habits, not instances, count the most.

Relationship management

The third common element between the best surgeons and the best leaders is relationship management.

The neurosurgeon I referenced above plays the lead role in any operation he is involved in. During brain surgery, there’s no question who’s in charge of that procedure. But is it possible to be in charge without being bossy? What benefits can be gained from taking appropriate responsibility without dictating everyone else’s responsibility?

Relationship management skills comprise a broad category that includes listening, willingness to openly self-disclose, clarity, curiosity and connectivity. The best relationship leaders manage tension and conflict instead of avoiding, facilitate deeper conversations, and coach to build responsibility and resilience.

One critical yet routinely overlooked part of people skills is how one manages self. Taking care of one’s health, knowing where one stands on important decisions, and being able to regulate one’s over-reactions—these capacities improve one’s effectiveness in leading others.

Lifelong learning

It’s the mix of these three capacities—tasks, ethics and relationships—that supports the fourth pillar, continual learning.

None of us is enlightened enough to fully master task efficiency, ethics or people skills. There is always opportunity to learn more. The most conscientious leaders I know integrate learning into their schedules and plans. They possess a mindset of lifelong learning.

A leader’s learning is not limited to the narrow confines of his particular industry or profession.

It expands to include interior learning that focuses on self-awareness, and exterior learning that seeks deeper understanding of the surrounding community and broader world.

I didn’t expect to get a 5-minute leadership lesson from a busy neurosurgeon in my friend’s hospital room that day. Sometimes, luck prevails.

Thank you to the neurosurgeon whose reflections sparked this column!

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.

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