A Few Lessons in Leadership

Contrary to most books on the subject, every successful leader, like every snowflake, is unique—a distinctive crystalline structure of personality, work habits, and other traits, forged by years of life experiences and critical mentorship. For successful Black leaders, such as the remarkable individuals honored in this edition of Savoy, these experiences inevitably include battling structural inequities and biases which stubbornly persist despite decades of grueling sacrifice to keep bending that moral arc towards racial justice.

Lessons derived from each individual’s experiences and constitution are also unique. As I contemplate my own winding journey— from teenager fleeing political violence in Ethiopia, to aspiring particle physicist, to heart surgeon, to medical device innovator and entrepreneur, and, finally, to chairman and chief executive of publicly-traded medical technology companies—I find myself focusing on a few key lessons involving people, moments, and traits.

Mentors come in many different flavors. Embrace them.

Most of us, especially underrepresented minorities, don’t have the luxury of picking our mentors from a list of folks who look like us or share our background. Instead, our mentors are usually individuals whose paths we cross through happenstance or networking. They may take a particular interest in us, but they don’t wear a “Hi, I’m your mentor!” nametag.

Although I am now firmly ensconced in business, I spent thirty years as a student and surgical trainee, so it is not surprising that my key mentors have been teachers and surgeons who taught me to “think like a physicist” and “operate like a surgeon”, which I continue to do as a business executive. Some sought me out. Others I sought out. A couple stand out for their long-lasting impact.

William Van Auken and Richard Nelson, two outstanding expatriate American teachers in 1970’s Ethiopia, sought me out. Mr. Van Auken challenged me as a sixth grader to love math and independently learn it at a blistering pace. Mr. Nelson picked up the baton in high school, taking a deep interest in my development as a student and more broadly as young man.

Twenty years later, after completing surgical training in Boston, I sought out two legendary European heart surgeons, Sir Magdi Yacoub and Professor Alain Carpentier, to expand my horizons.

Both became important mentors, teaching me about innovation in the service of patients. As an Egyptian-born immigrant in class and race-conscious Britain, Sir Magdi also showed me how to succeed in such societies through grit, grace, and sheer excellence.

Transformative moments are rarely scripted. Embrace them.

Successful leaders rarely follow neatly scripted multi-year politburo-style plans. Instead, their journey is punctuated by unscripted, transformative moments where opportunity meets years of hard work and foundational growth. I have had several such moments.

Here a few memorable ones:

  • signing up for a high school minority enrichment program at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory—a mind-blowing journey into the epicenter of particle physics, working directly with future Nobel Prize winners;
  •  holding a human heart for the first time as a surgeon delicately attached an artery to it, sealing my fate as a heart  surgeon;
  • questioning orthodoxy while surgically removing massive life-threatening blood clots, leading to the commercialization of a device I invented and a career as an entrepreneur;
  •  staring into the abyss of insolvency of a small pre-commercial public company I co-founded and run, forcing me to elevate my business skills to drive future success and growth.

Audacity and humility are two sides of the same coin.
This final missive is simple. A key driver of successful leadership is audacity—a willingness to be bold, to ask “why not me? Why not us?” Although it requires confidence, audacity is not hubris.

It is grounded in humility. Without humility, audacity leads to the destructive excesses of self-identified “Masters of the Universe” deluded into believing they are doing “God’s work.”

So, embrace mentors, embrace transformative moments, be audacious, be humble, and succeed as a leader.




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