Ruminations on Leadership

By Roheet Kakaday

Originally posted on The Biopsy:

This post was originally written during Hurricane Sandy, but couldn’t be published due to electric power concerns. Given the current buzz from the AAMC 2012 conference in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but realize the similarities between what was being said there and what I had written here. So, I decided to publish this. 

As I sit in this hurricane of historic proportions, waiting for the inevitable power outage and hoping that my basement room doesn’t flood, I can’t help but ponder. I mean, there’s not much else to do when every single channel is giving you real time updates on Sandy and going outside isn’t really an option.

What did I ponder on? Well, as the post’s title implied, leadership.

Specifically, what is leadership? And does it necessarily manifest itself in a convenient resume-compatible format?

Leadership is traditionally defined as a position of power over a group of people, be it a small company or a multinational corporation. Titles like CEO or President make for hefty resume inserts.

Are these people really leaders, though? What are they doing that is different? When I think of leading, I take it back to the basics. What did our first leaders do? They led our cavemen forebears into new and uncharted territory. They literally lead an expedition into the unknown.

Thus, when a CEO of a giant corporation calls him or herself a leader, I can’t help but question ‘what exactly are they leading?’ A company that continually makes the same product? Steve Jobs led the way into personalizing the digital domain through intuitive hardware and user interfaces. Looking at what Apple is currently producing, I would conjecture that it is reiterating rather than leading as it used to under Jobs. These corporate leaders are interested in maintaining, not disrupting, the status quo.

Certainly, there is wisdom to be gained from this type of ‘leadership’ since challenges still present themselves regularly. I don’t want to detract from those who currently fill such roles. Calling it ‘leadership’, however, is a misnomer. I would call it ‘custodianship’ or ‘guardianship’ where the primary concern is continuing an organization’s current mission. Cultural mores would designate such terms as somehow lesser in value, which is a mistake, considering the efforts each entails. There is an undeniable necessity and importance in maintaining things they way they are. That shouldn’t be the case all the time, though.

When medical school secondaries ask to list leadership experiences, everyone writes what is traditionally defined as leadership, as they should. It’s hard to redefine an entire society’s notion on a single application.

Going forward, however, I think everyone’s concept of leadership will start to solely focus on those who are doing things differently. If the popularity of TED Talks are any indication, the innovators in society are becoming increasingly valued and accessible through prolific social media channels. They can no longer be silenced and sectioned off by power players with stakes in the status quo.

Moreover, medical school admissions are looking for diverse classes. In addition to the traditional leadership roles many applicants have, I suspect admissions committees will begin asking, “What is this applicant doing differently?” If you have an non-traditional experience that somehow shows an innovative and team-oriented spirit, leadership will be automatically implied. As an undergraduate, the impact of  your innovation may be small, but its the effort that counts.

What exactly is “small”? Starting an online persona as a undergraduate could be a start. That would certainly buck the trend of applicants who assume Facebook pseudonyms and scrub all online bread crumbs. That would demonstrate honesty and transparency, increasingly important qualities for physicians. Instead of pursuing hard science research, as is traditionally done, you could look into studying the interaction between technology, medicine, and the patient experience. There are areas to be explored in spaces medicine is just getting used to. Go be a part of it.

Well, that’s what I think anyway.

Roheet Kakaday is a graduate of the University of California. He is currently working towards his dream of going to medical school and blogs at The Biopsy. Follow him on Twitter @TheBiopsy.