At a recent leadership retreat led by PCP national team, members of the Yale chapter reinforced personal commitments to primary care, strengthened their commitment to one another, and recognized the need for leadership training as a basic part of medical school curriculum.
By Nyasha George
Having recently seen the film Lincoln
, and having always been an admirer of President Obama’s public speaking style, I recognize their styles of storytelling as an effective means of inspiring others to act. However, it never occurred to me that this type of public speaking and the leadership that these two men embody could be learned skills. I suppose I had always assumed that leadership was a quality that one either did or did not possess – that leaders were born, not made.
So when I attended a day-long leadership retreat with the Yale chapter of Primary Care Progress hosted by PCP national team members Dr. Andrew Morris Singer, Uyen Doan, and Stephanie Aines, I didn’t know what to expect. The primary purpose of the retreat was to identify a direction forward for our large and enthusiastic chapter, and also to equip us with skills critical to becoming an effective leadership body. I had never been formally trained on how to be an effective leader, though, and I did not anticipate that I would discover leadership to be a skill that could be acquired and honed like any other. There is often so much talk about doctors assuming leadership roles in their communities, in professional organizations, and in government agencies. However, there was a noticeable lack of leadership training at my medical school, seemingly implying that we were expected to somehow magically discover our leadership skills.
It was not until I attended the retreat that I became aware of simple and specific tools that could be wielded to engage and mobilize others to a cause. For example, I came to appreciate the potential impact of a well-crafted public narrative like those of Lincoln and Obama. The public narrative begins with the story of self, which tells how and why the speaker came to make certain life and career choices -- in our case, the choice to pursue a career in primary care. The narrative then moves along to the story us, which explains the values or experiences that the speaker shares with the community he/she is trying to reach. The story ends with a call to urgent action also known as the story of now.
After we spent a few minutes crafting our stories, we were then tasked with partnering with our colleagues to practice our delivery. Though I had interacted often with my PCP colleagues, our meetings were usually time-constrained and focused almost solely on event planning. The leadership retreat was the first time that I learned of the specific life events that had shaped my teammates’ decisions to enter primary care, and it gave me the first-time opportunity to share the same with them. Our practice exercise turned out to be a wonderful relationship-building opportunity.
One team member recalled the particularly disturbing experience of being pressured by his attending to dismiss rather than admit a patient whom the team member felt should not be sent back home, where she lived alone. This experience set him firmly on the path towards primary care, a field in which he knew he would be best equipped to attend to his patients’ holistic needs. Another colleague shared his long-term involvement as an undergraduate volunteer in a free clinic and the deep satisfaction he got from working with an underserved patient population. I in turn shared my story of witnessing a middle-aged diabetic man endure three days of successive surgical procedures on his necrotic foot ulcer, and of coming to the realization that this was a tragic and potentially avoidable complication of his poorly managed chronic disease. Telling my personal story actually helped to crystallize my own motivations and to re-energize me at a time in the semester when my enthusiasm for primary care was running low. This kind of storytelling opened the door to relationship- and team-building, and was a source of self-renewal as well.
The day ended with our brainstorming a direction forward for our chapter. We embarked on a strategic planning exercise during which we generated a list of specific problems associated with primary care in our community: the absence of a family medicine department and a concomitant limited exposure to primary care training, research, and mentors; little access to innovative models of primary care delivery; technology issues; and lack of exposure to the patient-centered medical home for trainees. While there had obviously always been a consensus within our group on the need for improvement in primary care exposure, training, and delivery at our institution, this was perhaps the first time our leadership team had articulated and documented a list of specific problems and potential solutions upon which to focus.
Having learned about my colleagues’ motivations to choose primary care, and having worked with them as a team to define strategies to promote primary care in our shared community, I left the retreat with a deeper sense of commitment to my colleagues and to our organization as a whole. In addition, I am now convinced of the critical need for leadership training in medical schools wishing to prepare medicine’s future leaders.
Nyasha George is a 4th-year medical student at Yale School of Medicine. She is applying in family medicine for the 2013 match. Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, she hopes to return one day to help develop the nation's health care system.