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Abraham Verghese: “Leadership is not about knowing — it’s about listening”

profile-1636642_1280Listening well is one of the most important leadership skills, Abraham Verghese, MD, told about 25 undergraduate students at a recent Stanford's Student Activities and Leadership Leadership n' Lunch event. During his talk, he shared how his development as a leader has related to his identities as a writer, a physician and as an immigrant.

Verghese said his inspiration to become a physician-writer stemmed from his role models. His writing inspiration came from a teacher he had as a child in India whose encouragement had given him the confidence to write. He acknowledged the same teacher in his first book, Cutting For StoneAs a physician, Verghese said he emulated doctors in Africa and India who were phenomenal with patients. They inspired his practice of reading the body like a text through touch and careful listening.

In order to find role models, students need to start off with a good definition of success, according to Verghese. This involves “find[ing] out about the core value systems that allow them to be successful at what they’re doing. The visible success that comes from that internal belief system is secondary... In chasing what looks important, we sacrifice what is important.”

Verghese said he follows a “servant leadership model” that prioritizes listening and making informed decisions. “Servant leadership is where you candidly admit what you don't know, surround yourself with people who do know, and you gather the information and take your time to come to a decision… Leadership is not about knowing — it's about listening, getting the right information, and then making a judgement.”

He described an analogy he uses to teach his students about the differences between healing and curing: “Imagine someone had broken into your room. You would be devastated at two levels — that someone stole things that mattered to you personally, and that someone violated your sacred space.” The police might catch the culprit and return your items. In this act, you’ll be “cured,” but not “healed” because your sense of violation might linger, Verghese said.

Doctors must recognize this dual role. “We in Western medicine are very good at dealing with the physical loss, but we're not as good at dealing with the sense of violation,” Verghese explained. “And anybody with serious illness who comes to you, even if they're adult and talking very rationally, at some level the subtext is ‘Mommy, Daddy, come help me, please tell me it's going to be all right.’ And that ministerial function of being a physician remains very important.”

Most of all, leaders must be readers — of texts, of bodies and of the social condition, Verghese said. “You have an obligation to yourself not to narrow your focus,” he told the group. Doctors must read outside of medicine — to imagine and build compassion. “The joy of reading is that it expands your humanity.”

Previously: Presence: An essay by Abraham Verghese, Abraham Verghese: “A saintliness in so many of my patients”, Physician-author Abraham Verghese encourages journalists to tell the powerful stories of medicine
Image by johnthan

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