Last week I gave a talk at the Minnesota Neurosurgical Society meeting in Rochester, Minnesota entitled “Unlearning to Lead: A Physician Executive’s Perspective”. I talked about behaviors and work habits I had developed over time as a practicing neurosurgeon that created some barriers to my effectiveness as an executive leader. As a surgeon, I was expected to know important facts and information, do procedures well at the right time for the right reason, and use my knowledge and training to provide safe and effective care for patients. As an executive leader, I was expected to listen with intent, rather than “waiting to talk”; motivate a team rather than doing something myself; and ask good questions rather than just saying what I knew. Simply stated, my training and experience as a neurosurgeon was helpful from a credibility standpoint, but insufficient to prepare me for a successful executive career. As I traveled around the country in my corporate role, a number of physicians asked me not “why” I transitioned to executive leadership, but rather, “how” did I make that change. In this short blog, I am attempting to answer that question. To quote Lao Tzu, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”

The “unlearning” mindset offers you the opportunity to ramp up your curiosity and frame common ideas differently rather than relying on what you thought were immutable facts that ultimately turned out not to be true. While not always the case, very accomplished neurosurgeons can sometimes begin to believe that their special knowledge and technical expertise confer other skills such as leadership effectiveness, business acumen, and critical strategic vision. This cognitive bias of illusory superiority can prevent the ability to evaluate their own incompetence. Like most types of cognitive bias, this one has a name: the ”Dunning-Kruger Effect”. A striking example of this “effect” is when a talented surgeon who is known to lack essential emotional intelligence gets appointed to a leadership position based on professional accomplishments, and fails to in gain the followership of those very people necessary for his/her success in the new leadership role.

How does the aspiring physician leader avoid this cognitive trap? As I made some real errors in my own leadership journey; I was forced to seek an external assessment of my emotional intelligence domains and competencies. I think a commitment to life-long learning (and “unlearning”) can help increase both your curiosity and improve your self-awareness; and, will allow you to have an understanding of the difference between merely having a leadership position and actually leading and inspiring your team. Develop and foster curiosity about your own leadership with the same energy you had when you began your pursuit of medicine.