It was time for my yearly review. I was nervous, as usual. No, I wasn’t at work. I wasn’t an adult. I was “just” a teenaged girl in a volunteer program. They called us Candy Stripers, although we didn’t wear a uniform. I worked on the wards and in the emergency room. I hooked patients up to EKG machines, brought them their meals, charted their vital signs, retrieved equipment for the nurses and doctors who needed to do procedures. This was the last review before I would learn if I would get to spend the summer as a VAD—Volunteer Aid to a Doctor—where senior volunteers were matched with what I now believe to have been residents in training (the part that comes after the docs graduate from medical school and before they can be licensed to practice independently. As a VAD, I would have the privilege to work with one physician all summer, wherever, within the hospital he (and they were almost always “he”s in those days) was assigned. I would work the same hours, day or night, and do whatever my doctor taught me to do. This was like the capstone project at the Coney Island Hospital, in Brooklyn, NY (now the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hospital). The volunteer program was called the “Health Careers Exploration Program,” and it was run by Mr. H, the man who was about to talk to me about my performance for that year.
“Alice,” he said in that calm, reassuring voice of his. “Come on in and sit down. You don’t need to be nervous; this is going to be a fun chat.”
“Really,” I thought. “How could it be fun to get a year-end review? And what if I don’t get to be a VAD?”
I sat. I squirmed. I may have been sweating, at least a little bit. I pushed my glasses back up to the bridge of my nose and tried to appear calm.
“So,” he started, “how’ve you been?’
“OK, I guess, Mr. H, and you?”
“Oh, I’m just fine. Especially today, because I am meeting with you.”
Wow! What did THAT mean? I just stared at him. “I want to tell you how impressed I am with all the work you’ve done this year. You have taken all the training we have offered, and you’ve passed all of them with flying colors. All the other volunteers look up to you. You are their leader.”
Huh?? I was NOT their leader. I had no official role in the program. I worked the hours I signed up for. I was always on time. I tried desperately not to make mistakes, and I didn’t tell others what to do or how to do it. So, how could I be a leader?
Mr. H must have noticed my quizzical expression. He laughed a little. “So,” he chuckled. “You think that because you don’t have a title, you can’t be a leader?” I nodded in agreement. And then, he proceeded to give me the first (and perhaps most important) leadership lesson in my career. He told me that I was a leader in the program precisely because of how I behaved. I set an example, and other volunteers tried to emulate my approach to serving the patients and assisting the nurses and doctors. “But,” he added, “you don’t always act like a leader. I want you to remember that you always have a choice. You can let your intelligence and commitment show through, or you can act like many of the other girls, giggling and pretending to be less than you really are. So, I want you to commit to me that you will always live up to your own standards, or at least try to. I want you to let yourself be as serious as you wish to be. Don’t worry about people liking you. The important ones will, and they and everyone else will respect you. That is how you will get a chance to impact the world around you. If you commit to this, I will approve your application to be a VAD this summer.”
Can you imagine being sixteen and having this conversation? I am sure I didn’t understand everything he said, but of course, I agreed.
The importance of this conversation, which occurred in 1970, did not hit me until many years later when I was in an actual leadership position with a title to go along with it, feeling tired, worn out, and questioning whether this was how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life. Thinking back on Mr. H and his advice made me realize that all of us make a choice every single day that we embody by our actions. We either are leaders, or we are not. We can be handed a title, but we must step into the role. And we can only change the world if we are willing to choose to lead.
I frequently think of Mr. H. I hope that my choices to show up as a leader every day would make him smile.
Dr. Alice Ackerman is a retired pediatrician and leader in academic medicine who now pursues her calling to help those who love their purpose but struggle to love their job. She is an executive and leadership coach, using Axiogenics™ and the V/Q profile to help her clients find and use their best ways of thinking, so they can always play their “A” Game. You can find her at https://www.adackerman.com or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/coachingada