This article was provided by Dr. Damian (Pat) Alagia. Dr. Alagia is a former University of Louisville football player and former Chief Medical Officer for Kentucky One.
One of my surgical resident buddies was one of the coolest guys I ever knew. He was smart, polished, incredibly fit and just an all-around great person.
He always seemed to know the answers to the very hard questions the other residents would stumble on and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to save a life in the ICU when the rest of us seemed to be actively involved with the patient’s demise.
He made everything look so easy.
I remember asking him one morning before making rounds if, deep down, he was a gunner like the rest of us?
And I remember him smiling at me and saying; “Yep, but it’s not that deep down. I just like what I do and work hard at it every day. But nobody really will ever see or will ever know how hard I work or how much this means to me.”
And then he told me with a more serious smile, “I want you to remember three things from this conversation; 1) I have no idea why I ever answered your question but I did. 2) If you tell anyone about what I just said, then well, I am going to kill you in your sleep in the call room when you least expect it, and 3) I have a great image in this place and I would like to keep it that way.”
Of course, he was kidding about the “killing me in my sleep in the call room” but the specificity with which he said it was a bit jarring as it had an Odysseus soldier-like quality to it. I never said a word. He was a god to many of us mortals and the unspoken rule among mortals about gods is “that it’s best not to piss them off.”
But, and I say this carefully, that while he was a god in the OR, the ICU, on the floors, and in the classroom, his fatal flaw was that he was a solo player, a great heroic solo player who was interested in teaching us and mentoring or “tormentoring” us as we use to say but only to a point.
He needed to be the lead and made sure that our learning curve could never surpass his. Don’t get me wrong, competing with someone like this will always make the ambitious and talented much better but there comes a time when the ambitious and talented want to take a chance at being “the guy or the gal.” And just to be clear; the ambitious, talented and hardworking will not thrive around such people.
Over the years, I have seen too many high potential teams who were “destined for greatness” fall short of their greatness or dissolve because the formal or informal leader subtly or actively made it all about his or his or her success while acting like it was all about the team’s success. To be sure; watching a successful, tested, solo player perform miracles is a thing of beauty. (Think of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots scoring five fourth-quarter touchdowns in a come from behind Super Bowl win in 2017).
But while there is beauty in thinking about the hero, there is also a myth, since no one person can ever succeed without a great team. Surrounding every quarterback throwing touchdowns is someone who is catching the ball, blocking for the QB, or faking a run. There are also eleven guys off the field, called the defense, who keep the other team from scoring and of course many others in the booth who call plays and adjust strategies. Surrounding every surgeon who cross clamps a ruptured aortic aneurysm during a bloodbath of an emergency surgery, there are hundreds of other highly skilled professionals who have played essential parts in saving that life.
In short, if a team is going to be great, the team needs to be filled with tested high-performing competitive collaborators. It needs to be filled with individuals who are mature enough to move from demonstrating their personal prowess to individuals who are committed to collaborating with the high performing competitors and shaping the team into a high performing team.
The transition from high-performing solo player to a high-performing team player coupled with the transition from the competitive – it’s all about me thinking – to the collaborative – it’s all about us thinking, is not for the faint of heart or the timid. Such transitions require courage from the high- performing solo players to leave the identities and ways of thinking that have been successful in getting them to incredibly high levels to thinking about and believing in other high performers. In order to ascend to the highest levels, one needs to contribute and commit to the team’s performance while maintaining the highest level of personal performance. One needs to commit to not only personal improvement but to the improvement to those around him or her. In short, one needs to be a committed, competitive, high-performing collaborator.
And as for my friend who was the “OR god,” well he became a famous plastic surgeon and did very well for himself and for others. But the most memorable part of this story is that there were many others who made and continue to make major contributions to our profession and to society as they transitioned from being great solo players to becoming great collaborative players and creating great high-performing teams.
One became a world-famous pediatric surgeon, the other a healthcare entrepreneur, the other a highly successful oncologic surgeon and the chairman of a prestigious academic program, and the other became a successful hospital system CEO and founder of a private equity company. And the list goes on but the important lesson here is that every one of them moved from being the rock star all-star surgeon to someone who built great teams. Every one of them moved from competing with everyone around them to collaborating with everyone around them.
And I have to tell you if these folks can make such a transition and see the value and purpose in doing so, then we all should think about following their lead.
Damian P. “Pat” Alagia III, MD, MBA