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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Power of empathy in leadership

Dr. Nadja West- Surgeon General

"I learned how to encourage people to do things that they might not want to do. You don’t want to scare your patients or chastise them. You can talk to them all day long and explain to them what’s happening, but if you don’t really understand what’s going on in their lives or why they can’t do what you’re asking them to do, it can be frustrating." Dr. Nadja West

As a nurse, this New York Times Business Day article was particularly interesting to me for two reasons (a) "Empathy" as business concept? Who knew?; and (b) Lt. Gen. West is a physician (not particularly known for expressing empathy).

This interview with Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, the Army surgeon general, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. 

West was an orphan but was adopted at two years old into a family in Washington DC, with eleven other adopted children. She graduated high school at the Academy of the Holy Names in Silver Spring, Maryland. In 1982, West graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point. She received her Doctor of Medicine degree from George Washington University.

West is married to Donald West, a retired Army colonel. They have two children

Adam Bryant talks with top executives about leadership.

Q. Tell me about your parents?

A. I was adopted by very humble, very decent people. My dad was born in New Orleans. He joined the Army in 1939, and loved the organization enough that he stayed for 33 years.

Back then, the Army was segregated, but he never felt bitterness about that. He just explained that that’s the way things were, but that as you got to know people and work with them, you could win them over.

He felt that everyone should serve their country, so we grew up in a home with a real sense of patriotism. I have 11 brothers and sisters, all adopted, and most of us have served in the military.

My mom was born in Hot Springs, Ark. When she was young, she had a ruptured appendix. Because of the scar tissue, she could never have children. But she dedicated herself to helping others — not just adopting kids herself, but helping the nuns at a Catholic orphanage find families for the children there.

Any favorite family expressions?

My dad was a sergeant for the mess hall at one point, and there was a sign that said, “Take all you want, but eat all you take.” So they taught us to not be wasteful.

They also would remind us that people are always watching you, so you have to set an example and watch your behavior. My dad said you have to have a “sense of decorum.” He always used that term.

What have been some key leadership lessons for you?

One characteristic that stands out in all the leaders I’ve seen is empathy. You don’t have to be like everyone else, but you can try to connect with other people. People can tell if you care about them or not.

You have to show soldiers and the people who work for you that you may not know where they’re from or their background, but you’re responsible for them and you try to figure out the best way to connect with them. If you treat every human being with dignity and respect, you can’t go wrong.

What else?

Through my medical training early on, I learned how to encourage people to do things that they might not want to do. You don’t want to scare your patients or chastise them. You can talk to them all day long and explain to them what’s happening, but if you don’t really understand what’s going on in their lives or why they can’t do what you’re asking them to do, it can be frustrating. You can’t yell at your patients, but I was thinking, “Why aren’t they listening to me?”

So that was my first leadership training — to get your patients to move in a direction that you want them to move, you have to use different types of approaches. In the military, technically you could say, “Do this now.” But you can’t tell that to a patient, so you have to learn how to persuade people.

One by product of this approach early on was that it might have made me a little less decisive in the military realm, because I would always be thinking about different possible strategies. Ultimately, I learned how to find the right balance.

What about lessons from mentors?

Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who recently retired after over 40 years in the Army, gave me a lot of guidance and advice. At one point he asked me, “What job do you want to do?” I said, “Well, sir, I’ll do any job that the Army gives me.”

And he said: “I’m sure you will, but what would you like to do? Because if you don’t ask for the jobs that you might be interested in doing, the answer will always be no.”

One of my favorite quotes is from Gen. Colin Powell, which — and I’m paraphrasing here — is that the day soldiers stop coming to you with their problems means one of two things. One is that you can’t help them because you’re not capable of helping them, or the other is that you don’t care.

So as a leader, even if you’re busy and people keep coming to you, never complain about that because that means they think you can do something about it or at least that you care.

You lead 140,000 people now. Any insights on the art of leading that many people?

One of the key things I tell my team is to make sure they don’t change my tone when they’re passing along what I think needs to be done. You have to bring people along, and I usually like to tell people why we’re doing something to help ensure they buy into it.

How do you hire?

The first questions are, “Do you want the job?” and “Are you willing to work hard?” I want to make sure it’s not just a steppingstone for something else.

I’m trying to understand their motivation. Are they in it for Army medicine or for themselves? The overriding reason should be that they believe in what we’re doing and can help move us forward.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

Make sure you don’t sell yourself short, and don’t be fearful that you’re not going to succeed. If I’d started at West Point now, knowing what I know, it would have been a totally different experience.

At the time, I was afraid I couldn’t do it, and I had no confidence. The summer we entered, West Point was called “Beast Barracks.” Back then, there was a lot of yelling. That was a very new and traumatic event for me to have someone yell at me in my face.

If I could do it again, I would have just said to myself: “O.K., this is the phase I’m going through. He’s going to be yelling, and I’ll be fine afterward. I’ll just go to class and not take this so seriously.”

So I tell people, don’t be so fearful. Always remember, the worst that can happen is that somebody says no. If you want to do something, go for it. What do you have to lose?


Quote from Dr. West's biography on Wikipedia:

West says, "If you want to feel inspired about what military medicine does, see how appreciative these men and women are for the care they’ve received. It’s right here. It’s the reason the military health system exists: to take care of brave men and women like them."

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