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SPOTLIGHT ON LEADERSHIP: Interview with Ronald L. Dalman, MD

I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Ronald Dalman, the Walter C. and Elsa R. Chidester Professor and Chief of Vascular Surgery at Stanford University. We focused on one of the five “practices” routinely embraced by successful leaders described by Kouzes and Posner in their book “The Leadership Challenge”: “challenging the process” and the courage to question the status quo and thoughtfully test new paradigms.

VC: Tell me about your leadership style when it comes to implementing change. How do you prepare yourself for the potential risks associated with such change?

RLD: A lot of people in leadership roles talk about “how do you get people to do what you want?” I believe that approach focuses on the wrong question. The key way to look at implementing change in an organization/program is to align it to everyone’s goals. I make it a practice to try to become intimately familiar with the goals of the organization at all levels. Then, from the perspective of the stakeholder, you can help them understand why the changes you are trying to implement are in their best interest. Another key component is being as transparent as possible. I believe in being open with the information that I work hard to acquire in order to understand the need for change, and then I share it. I want them to see what I’m seeing, then allow them to draw their own conclusions. Nine times out of 10, when presenting the data in this clear way, informed team members will come to the same conclusions. If you think about the peer group we are working with, they are all extremely well-educated, conscientious and ambitious individuals who don’t need to be encouraged to do the right thing, they just need the information to see where that path lies.

VC: I would say another style that you encompass (since I work with you) is that you are almost always the first person to throw yourself into the mix. For example, we opened a new clinic in a new location and you personally went there first, even though you were hiring people to cover that location. Is this an intentional approach?

RLD: Well, yes, that is my style. I had a colleague who liked to say, “Beware the courage of the non-combatant.” This all falls into understanding the situation. By personally putting myself in the situation, when possible, I get first-hand knowledge about whether this is a worthwhile endeavor and what may be the key issues, challenges, etc. Integrity and transparency require doing what you say is best and saying what you are actually doing and why.

VC: What are other leadership skills critical to your day-to-day success?

RLD: There are several: 1) Be responsive. While you may not solve the problem or have the correct answer right away, it is imperative to ensure that people’s concerns have been heard and are being addressed. 2) Leverage all the assets on your team in order to get the best out of everyone. For example, in my role today, having an administrative dyad that can make decisions on my behalf, decisions that reflect what my priorities are and vice versa, is incredibly helpful to the success of our program and my goals as a leader. 3) Reset sometimes. Sometimes there are bad ideas, or decisions or feelings that have been lingering and are difficult to work around or through. The natural tendency is to avoid these sticky/difficult areas; however, these are like bad areas on a hard drive and you need to address these problematic areas head on. You must reset the hard drive, so to speak. If you don’t, it can be impossible to move forward. 4) Prioritize the good of the group. It is well known that one gets the opportunity for leadership roles because of individual performance, but then overnight you have to completely change your perspective and reset your focus on the success of the group rather than your own personal priorities. This is imperative but not necessarily intuitive to the new leader.

VC: What a good point. What advice do you have for people making such a transition?

RLD: It’s really about self-awareness. In addition, you need to be mature enough in your practice and career. Just because an opportunity is offered now doesn’t mean it is the right time for you. While there is never a perfect time, you really have to know yourself, and know what your strengths, weakness and personal goals are, to make the right decision. If you are able to think concretely about these things you can then determine if they are aligned with what your goals would need to be as a leader and what you will want the group to accomplish. Many of us are over-achievers and believe that we need to keep striving for the next accomplishment/opportunity. But it is important to stop and think about what it is that will ultimately make you happy. What it is about this leadership position that truly resonates with you? If you don’t think this through, you may not be ready for a leadership transition, as there are major tradeoffs when taking on such roles. Often you must be prepared to pay less attention on your personal career so as to focus on the broader goal of group or program that you may be leading.

VC: In conclusion what parting advice do you have for younger vascular surgeons?

RLD: Think big. Look outside your immediate circle of acquaintances and colleagues for collaborative opportunities. When you look outside your comfort zone (academic discipline, specialty focus, age, training background, institutional affiliation, nationality, etc.) to build broader collaboration networks, you create novel opportunities and insights which will be incredibly transformational for your own career and professional future. They certainly have been for me!