But what exactly defined these people who, decades later, still inspire me and whose lessons still influence many aspects of my life?
There is never one defining characteristic of a great leader. Some leaders have years of experience in their field of expertise and their mere presence commands respect. Others are cheerleaders and the nature of their position requires a more vocal presence.
I have always respected the type of leader who leads by example with little fanfare. At times in my life when leadership was required of me, I have tried to model this behavior.
As a high school football player, I was repeatedly reminded of the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” by my coach, John Walker. John was a man of few words, but with his intensity and economy of words, he got the most out of his undersized teams. We were ranked seventh in the state before a disappointing loss to the eventual state runner-up.
As a Class AA 185-pound offensive and defensive tackle, I took honorable mention All-State honors, and I was able to continue my playing career while studying biology and pre-med at Kalamazoo College. I attribute much of my success to the style of leadership exhibited by my coach.
My time in college and medical school was spent mostly on academic pursuits. I spent many hours in labs and writing papers. It wasn’t until 1998 when I started my emergency medicine residency at Maine Medical Center that I was asked to step out from my role as student to learn how to really be a doctor. This is the point in most doctors’ training where they figure out the kind of physician they are going to be. I'm not talking about professional specialization, but rather how that young doctor-in-training is going to actually behave in times of adversity and stress.
The people from whom I learned the most were those who, with surety of purpose, maintained their composure and their sense of humor during the most trying times. Emergency medicine is unique in that doctors and nurses work side-by-side at all times. During a typical shift, most encounters are fairly straightforward and not needing of critical action. But at least once a shift, a patient shows up requiring the team to act swiftly and decisively, and the physician is the one in charge of that team.
I remember specific encounters where, as a physician-in-training, I would get bogged down in a series of what-ifs, while my supervising physician and the rest of the team would move about the critical patient with fluidity, like a well-choreographed dance. Only each patient was different, so the choreography would vary from case to case, but the grace with which they performed was consistent irrespective of the particulars of the encounter.
It was those leaders who had a steady hand and kept an even tone whose teams always performed best. Those for whom the team had the greatest confidence were the physicians who had such a mastery of the clinical content that their decisions seemed almost pre-ordained. It was as if they had done that dance before even when encountered with a unique case that challenged their very expertise.
These mentors’ voices are in my mind when I lead my team through a difficult shift or with a critically ill patient. I have shown the members of my team, from registration clerk to RN, that no matter what, I will have their backs, and they always have mine.
This approach ensures the best possible outcome for the patient, and it allows us to move from case to case with relative ease without getting burned out by the stress of the moment.
This type of leadership is severely lacking from many of our supposed leaders of today. Our legislators and executives in Lansing and Washington, D.C., are lacking in the basic requirements of a solid leader. Most of them focus too much on touting their own accolades and accomplishments while losing focus of the people they are supposed to be leading. They spend more time cozying up to the biggest donors and political benefactors instead of solving real problems that affect the people who gave them their jobs in the first place. Better wages. Health care they can count on. Good public schools. Clean water and air.
Real leadership is about paving a path forward so each citizen has an opportunity to achieve their American dream. Instead, we're getting dragged through the mud with the scandal of the day. The complete absence of leadership is why people are so disillusioned with those who represent us, and why they are disengaged in the electoral process that should be the most sacred act of a citizen.
A renewed sense of leadership is needed to restore the faith of the American people in its government and to elevate the lives of all people.
— By Dr. Rob Davidson, Tribune community columnist