People often ask me where I get ideas for this column. Many come from my experiences and others from things I have read; I am an avid reader. Every day I read books, magazines and newspapers. We are lucky in this nation to have such great magazines and newspapers, but too often I hear that people don't take the time to get much past the headlines, if they read at all.
Two of the newspapers I make an effort to read every day are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A few days ago, the Times published an interview with Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health. Normally, I wouldn't expect to be mesmerized by such a Q-and-A, but as I read this interchange I became quite intrigued.
Maybe that's because I always am impressed by leaders who espouse management tenets that are a little out of the ordinary and reveal empathy and sensitivity, traits that are missing in many leaders. Too often people are put into top posts because they have an outstanding sales record or are bean counters who know more about cost cutting and busting people's careers than about the core values of the business.
Zerhouni was born in Algeria and came to this country in 1975 after graduating from medical school at the University of Algiers. The article points out that Zerhouni has been a "researcher, an inventor, a businessman and a professor of medicine." Before coming to the NIH he was executive dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and chairman of the radiology department there.
He was asked by the Times: "You've been head of the National Institutes of Health for a year now. What is your job? Are you a politician? A scientist? A manager? All of those?" He replied: "First of all I come to it as a scientist. Disease knows no politics. And science advances in ways that are unpredictable. I think it's very important for scientists to be in leadership positions to inform, to enlighten the debate, but also lead the debate as to what are the best pathways for reducing the burden of disease."
When asked, "What does it take to be a leader?" he said, "I think there are three things. First, you have to have a big heart. Because if you don't have a big heart you will never be able to lead. And a big heart means several things to me. You have to have a passion. You have to believe in some things that are your core values. The second is you have to have a spine, which means stand up for what you think and take risks that you think are important. And the third and least important is brains. People often think that high intelligence is a prerequisite. I don't believe so. I think a big heart and strong spine are more important than high intelligence."
I've never met Zerhouni and I'm not even sure he will make our list of the 100 Most Powerful People in Healthcare (he's a nominee; the list will be published Aug. 25). But what he had to say-not only about the mission of the NIH and leadership-is good common sense, something that seems to be in short supply these days as you watch the performance of many so-called leaders running all kinds of organizations.
Another part of the interview that caught my notice had to do with recruiting good scientists to the NIH. Zerhouni makes it clear that recruiting people into government is difficult because the rewards and fringe benefits in the private sector often are more rewarding. When he first came to the NIH there were six research vacancies. Asked how he made a specific hiring decision to fill one of those posts, he said: "Dr. Tom Insel ran the primate research center at Emory (University in Atlanta). When I went down there I spent time with him to try to get a sense about his vision, and as always my heart, spine and brain theory, and how he managed people. Scientifically, he was strong. And then I came to a room where he introduced me to his lab, his postdocs. It was a beautiful room, and I said: `Well, you all are very well-treated around here. This is your lounge.' And then they told me: `Oh, but you know, this wasn't our place. This was supposed to be Dr. Insel's office, and he gave it to us.' And I went to his office, and his office was like a little corner. I said, `That's the man I want.' "
At the end of the Times interview, Zerhouni's humility and candor came through loud and clear when he was asked, "Does being from another country influence your work?" He answered, "You want to pay back. I think America treated me well, and I think you have to be grateful and have a sense of duty. Also, when you leave your country you take a chance, so there is a natural selection here that's ongoing: I'm not risk-adverse. Taking risks is part of leadership. Some people ask me, `What did you think about this? You're an immigrant, you're not born here, you've come through the ranks at Hopkins and then you're picked at NIH.' I say, `Look, it says more about America than it says about me.' "
Zerhouni did what so many people have done in coming to America to fulfill his dream. Here you can find the opportunity to be whatever your skills and effort allow you to be.
In the good doctor's case, it meant becoming the leader of a key healthcare institution. Perhaps the doctor would not have had such an opportunity elsewhere, especially as an immigrant. I am glad he did follow his dream. We need more leaders like him.
The doctor knows best,
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Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles, and is an experienced guest lecturer available for public speaking engagements. For more information, visit www.chucklauer.com