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 preventable. 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 surgeries.
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 it?
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.