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  • Reflections on the CNS Leadership Institute Experience

    Author: Sameer A. Sheth, MD, PhD
    Department of Neurosurgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX

    As I think back on the reasons that originally motivated me to apply for the CNS Vanguard Leadership program, I realize how different my frame of mind was at that time, and indeed, how different the world was. My takeaway goals were fairly straightforward by all measures: as new faculty at the Baylor College of Medicine, I wanted to consider how to grow the program in my area of interest, functional neurosurgery. I had joined a faculty with two excellent surgeons in this area, and my addition increased our capacity, but not our immediate referral base. I wanted to learn how to anticipate the nuanced positions of the various stakeholders in this space, including the hospital, the service line, and other clinical departments. The Vanguard course certainly provided that perspective and answers to those immediate questions, but the community it created for me has provided even more over time.

    Through a mix of lectures, workshops, and project-focused discussions, the course conveyed some extremely useful themes. The ones that resonated with me the most were those of thinking beyond oneself and finding win-win situations with others to accomplish one’s goals. As I began implementing these strategies back home, I kept remembering Dr. Joe Cheng’s insistence on the mindset of building a program, not just a practice. As I looked for ways to align the hospital’s resources and the Neurology department’s interests with our plans for the growth of a functional neurosurgery center, I kept thinking of Dr. Rich Byrne’s comments during the discussion of my project proposal: use the levers of your various roles in the college/department and hospital/service line to identify mutually beneficial solutions that not only serve your purpose but also positively impact those around you. This lesson is not a difficult one to understand but is sometimes an easy one to forget in the frantic bustle of our over-scheduled lives.

    For the same reason we pay attention to the crowds of friends with whom our kids hang out, we are mindful of the people we choose to include in our inner circles. The influence of community is substantial. A longer-term impact of this course has been, and will continue to be, longitudinal interactions with the neurosurgical leadership community. The gathering of our group at CNS 2019 was a great reunion of our “class” as well as a chance to tell each other about progress and hurdles we have encountered. We discussed strategies adapted to our individual circumstances and even options for more formal education through executive degree programs. I imagine that the friendships from these activities will also be a life-long source of motivation, as we encourage each other to reach our greatest leadership potential.

    Back home, we were off to a promising start with the implementation of these strategies when the pandemic hit. In times like these, the value of effective leadership is greater than ever. Dr. David J. Langer, who addressed our group at the CNS 2019 class reunion, also gave a very moving and thoughtful account of his experience in NYC to our Baylor department as a virtual Visiting Professor recently. He mobilized his group early and found ways to contribute to the effort of combating the surge that threatened to crush his hospital and community. Although some within our field have been called to the front lines, many of us have not. But even if we are not directly managing ventilators and treating multi-system failure, we can find innovative ways to direct other supportive roles to ease the burden on our colleagues who are straining under the effort. The recovery process, as well as the watchfulness that will be required for future pandemic resurgences, are also critical opportunities for us to use these skills. Leadership qualities can be developed not just in a classroom workshop in times of peace, but also through thoughtful actions in times of war.

    To the leadership themes I mentioned earlier, I would add generosity as a value that we must uphold in the months and years ahead. Everyone has been affected, and thus recovery of one department or service line is meaningless without recovery of the system. Successful leaders will prize long-term benefits of the whole over short-term, opportunistic gains of the few. It is difficult to predict how our health systems will fare even in the months between this writing and its publication. A certainty, however, is that effective leadership will be critical for the future prosperity of our field and our community.

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