It was a long wait at the Department of Motor Vehicles to take my motorcycle driving test, so Bryan and I got into one of those conversations about our work. Bryan is the entrepreneur who was renting me a motorcycle and helmet so I could take my test. His day job is as a hospital imaging tech (CT scans, X-rays, and so on).

When I told him about the Center for Creative Leadership, he asked, “Can you do anything for surgeons?” and then launched into a series of stories about the leadership of surgical teams. He said, “I was working with one surgeon recently and everything was going smoothly. He would ask politely for what he needed. He calmly asked for the reports from different members of the team. In the middle of it, it dawned on me that this was extraordinary! A surgeon was being polite and not freaking out.”

He went on, “On another occasion, we did one surgery with one of the intense, narcissists. The next surgery was with a different surgeon and when he asked for something, the whole surgical team scrambled frantically to get it. He looked around him and held up his hand, ‘Hold up there!’ he said, ‘Wrong doctor!’”

Bryan told me that there was a rumor around his hospital that there was a proposal that team evaluations of the surgeons be eliminated. He didn’t have much confidence in the self-awareness or even willingness of these team leaders to take feedback. “But,” he said, “the teams where the surgeons treat the rest of the team with respect and maintain a professional attitude do better medicine.” He was convinced they had better outcomes too.

I asked Bryan what he did about it. “Well, three of the other techs got fed up with the behavior of one surgeon and they wrote a report to the hospital. I just deal directly with the docs. If I think a surgeon is crossing the line, I’ll tell him…try to make it humorous and not create a problem, but I’ll say something directly to the surgeon.”

He told me about one 25-year veteran surgical assistant who was dealing with a surgeon who began sputtering and waving his hand in front of her face. While quite sure that she knew what he wanted, she still challenged him, “What, are we five? Use your words!”

The fundamentals of leadership are still key. The more power lodged with the designated leader, the more is required of him or her: certainly self-awareness and respect for the contributions of others. It can be a matter of life or death.

Like good surgical teams, what aspect(s) within your organization drives a good team?

– Doug Riddle

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