October 12, 2012 - Sanjiv Chopra on Leading by Example
Sanjiv Chopra, MD, MACP is Professor of Medicine and Faculty Dean for
Continuing Medical Education at Harvard Medical School. He’s a
hepatologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He’s also a
leadership expert and master communicator who believes that storytelling
is a core currency of effective leadership for social change.
In today’s interview, the physician and author (his book, Leadership by Example: The Ten Key Principles of All Great Leaders,
was released in May) does some storytelling of his own—and gives a
sneak peek at what conference attendees can expect from his keynote
speech at the Schweitzer Leadership Conference on November 3 in
Cambridge, MA. (Click here to register today.)
ASF: Can you tell us a little bit about what initially drew you to a career in the health professions?
SC: One of the most inspirational people in my life was my
father. He was a physician and a cardiologist who was incredibly kind
and compassionate. He had a practice in a town in central India, and
people flocked from all over the country to see him. My mother would see
some of these people coming, and turn to the secretary and say, “I
don’t think they can afford the fee, so don’t charge them. Serve them
tea, ask them how they came, and if they came by bus or train, give them
the fare for their way back.”
When I was a nine-year-old, my father was posted out in the army
medical corps, and I remember there being around 800 people on the train
platform, waving goodbye to him. At that point, I said, “I want to be a
doctor.” But three years later, there was a bizarre incident that
really gelled it for me. I was in high school in New Delhi, staying with
my aunt and uncle. One weekend, I was reading a book and dozed off—and
when I woke up, I could not see. I touched my brother, and said,
“Deepak, I can’t see. I’m blind.” He started crying. They took me to the
military hospital, where the doctors diagnosed me with hysterical
blindness—even though they were doing visual tests with sharp needles
and I wasn’t blinking or responding.
Finally, they called my father, who was 300 miles away. He said,
“Tell me everything that’s happened to Sanjiv in the last two months.”
They mentioned that I had had an incident a few weeks ago, where I was
nicked with a cricket wicket near my eye and needed to get a suture. He
said, “Did you give him antibiotics?” They said yes. He said, “Did you
give him a tetanus shot?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Did he get
anti-tetanus toxoid (ATT) or anti-tetanus serum (ATS)?” They looked, and
it had been ATS. My father said, “Sanjiv is having a rare,
idiosyncratic reaction to ATS. He’s got severe optic neuritis—so the
nerve behind his eye is completely inflamed. Start an intravenous and
give him massive doses of corticosteroids.” They did that, and several
hours later, my vision returned.
So at age nine and twelve, I had these moving and memorable—and,
really, life-altering—experiences and said, “I want to be a physician
like my father.”
My father talked about Albert Schweitzer and what an amazing
physician and humanitarian he was. He also talked about Gandhi—I was
born after he was assassinated, so I heard a lot of stories. My father
and his brothers were amazing storytellers. They would keep me and my
brother spellbound and mesmerized.
ASF: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the power of
storytelling—that’s something we try to instill in our Fellows in terms
of their work to create change.
SC: Absolutely. You know, Howard Gardner has championed
something called the Good Work project, and talked about how good work
has to have three attributes: it has to be skilled, it has to be
ethical, and it has to be meaningful. But he’s also talked about
leadership. He once said, “Leaders provided leadership in two principal
ways: through the stories they tell, and the kind of lives they lead.”
So to me, all great leaders live a great story—and then those stories
are told and retold and passed along. They resonate universally, for
generations to come. You don’t have to be Indian to be inspired by
Mahatma Gandhi, or South African to be inspired by Nelson Mandela, or
American to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln.
ASF: Your book Leadership by Example: The Ten Key Principles of All Great Leaders
was released in May, and Schweitzer Leadership Conference participants
will have the chance to learn about leadership from you in person—but
can you share one insight now in this interview, as a taste?
SC: Of course. Very often, the spark for leadership arises
from a negative event. Something that’s negative can be startling and
jolting, but also momentous—and from it grows a desire and a passion and
a laserlike focus to make a dream a reality. This is true, I think, for
a lot of people in life, who go through something difficult, and vow to
do something to prevent it from happening to anyone else. There’s a
wonderful saying by the Buddha—“Every life has a measure of sorrow.
Sometimes, it is this that awakens us.”
ASF: We hear similar stories from our Fellows as far as what
galvanized them to take action to address health disparities—stories
like, “I was working in a community health center. A homeless patient
came in, and we had to amputate both of his feet because of diabetes
complications that would have been completely presentable. I decided I
needed to do something, so I started a diabetes management program at my
local homeless shelter.”
SC: Absolutely. There’s a young woman, Jennifer Staple, who I
talk about in my book. As a pre-med student at Yale, while on an
ophthalmology rotation she came across a number of people who had gone
blind from causes that were in essence treatable, and the treatment
would have prevented them from going blind. Who were these people?
Low-income people who didn’t have regular access to doctors. So back at
Yale she started an organization called Unite for Sight. This
organization has trained over 5,000 fellows, examined more than a
million patients, and performed more than 50,000 sight restoring
ASF: For some emerging professionals who are just beginning
their careers, the prospect of demonstrating leadership in ways that
create change in our social and health care systems may seem daunting
and unachievable. What is your advice for these leaders in training?
SC: Write down your goals—and when you write them down, be
bold. Be audacious. Thoreau once said, “If you have built castles in the
air, your work will not be lost. That is where they should be.
Now go put the foundations underneath.” And Søren Kierkegaard, a great
Danish philosopher and theologian, once said, “To dare is to lose one’s
footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose one’s self.”
Look for a mentor, and follow what really resonates for you. As
Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss, and doors will open where
there were no doors before.”
ASF: On the flip side of that coin, in your role as Dean of CME
at Harvard, you may encounter established professionals who are no
longer as fired up as they once were about their vocation and
contributing to their communities and working to address health
disparities. What is your advice as far as working with passion on tough
issues for the long haul, but in ways that prevent burnout?
SC: That’s a great question. I had a conversation about this
not too long ago with Bill George, who teaches leadership at Harvard
Business School and has written two wonderful books, Authentic Leadership and True North.
We went out for dinner, and he said, “Sanjiv, medical students go into
medical school full of hope and a desire to heal. But then there is
often burnout later in their careers—and sometimes even early in their
careers. What do you think we need to do?”
I said to him, “We have to teach them leadership.” He said, “What is
leadership grounded in?” I said, “Leadership is grounded in being happy.
You cannot be a good leader unless you are happy.” He said, “What is
happiness grounded in?” I said, “It’s grounded in three things. You have
to have lots of friends—your friends are your chosen family. You have
to be able to forgive and not hold bitterness or rancor in your heart.
And the third thing is a quote from Schweitzer: ‘I don’t know what your
destiny will be, but I do know this: the only ones among you who will be
truly happy are those who have sought and found a way to serve.’”
So it’s three F’s – friends, forgiveness, and for others. It’s also
finding moments of silence—whether it’s in your room, or out in nature,
or in a temple or a church. Meditation and finding silence are one of
the most powerful things you can do to prevent burnout. There’s a saying
that goes, “You should meditate at least once every day—and if you
don’t have time to do that, you should meditate twice a day!”
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related
issue of our time, and what leadership skills are required to address
SC: The burgeoning epidemic of obesity and its associated
chronic health issues. I don’t have an easy solution, but what’s needed
is a multi-pronged approach involving parents, teachers, schools,
society, and the government. I am very impressed by U.S. Surgeon General
Regina Benjamin’s philosophy on this issue. She was a keynote speaker
at a recent Harvard Medical School CME course, and one of the things
she’s emphasizing is that we need to keep our messaging very simple and
action-oriented—not “obesity causes an overwhelming number of chronic
health conditions,” but “walk, and you’ll feel healthier and happier.”
ASF: When they leave your keynote in November, what do you hope conference participants will come away with?
SC: I hope they will leave informed—and perhaps even inspired—to lead in exemplary ways.
Sanjiv Chopra’s keynote speech at the Schweitzer Leadership Conference (www.schweitzerfellowship.org/conference)
will take place at 8:15 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3. The conference is at
the Royal Sonesta Hotel (40 Edwin Land Boulevard, Cambridge, MA). Registration is open to the public through Monday, October 15. Click here to register today.