Inspirational meeting

Leadership Matters – Part I

I am on my way back from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Annual Meeting, Learn Serve Lead 2019, in Phoenix. As you know, I come from the Maritimes where those with good fortune go to Florida in the winter. Coming here I assumed the attraction to Phoenix was simply proximity and weather but now I really understand its popularity. The climate is obviously remarkable but a side trip one day to the Grand Canyon revealed a varied and beautiful landscape of truly amazing vistas—as well as hikes that can really get your heart rate up!

I have always been surprised and inspired by this meeting. While the Canadian Conference on Medical Education and International Conference on Residency Education are some of the best meetings in the world (also the Association for Medical Education in Europe) for the latest in medical education, this meeting is the best for amazing plenary speakers and inspiration. In thinking about the AAMC one might expect lots of ivory tower privilege and healthcare-as-profitable-business (and fair enough; the Americans mostly wear suits to the meeting).

The surprise and inspiration come from the amazing speakers who in one way or another are always talking about activism, advocacy and change. The audience is medical education and healthcare leaders, from students to deans. In this meeting the AAMC and the invited speakers push leaders to fight health inequity, achieve diversity, teach and implement anti-racism, fight bias, and lead with humility, curiosity and empathy. One very effective strategy is to invite many leading speakers and thought leaders from outside medicine and healthcare, which in itself is very refreshing. Here, I would like to tell you about the opening day plenary speaker.

One quick sidebar first: we were entertained by the students of Rosie’s House, one of the largest American free after-school music programs for socio-economically disadvantaged children. The school’s leader shared that the greatest predictor of success in school in the United States is postal code. Through music, Rosie’s House fights these disadvantages such that 95 per cent of its graduates achieve their educational and career goals! The music and the inspiration was worth the price of the conference.

Now to the opening plenary, American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference, delivered by Bryan Stevenson. From the AAMC meeting schedule description, “Bryan Stevenson is a committed, passionate, and eloquent defender of the incarcerated, the poor, and those oppressed by racism. As founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the mastermind behind the National Lynching Memorial, Stevenson is not afraid to address the dark past of this country and the ongoing injustices that are far too common in 2019.”

Bryan is a remarkable man and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. He was passionate, articulate and used a remarkable balance of evidence and narrative. And he could teach all of us how to structure and deliver a talk. He had four key messages, which he foreshadowed, then built on each with stories and data, repeated them, linked them, summarized and, did I mention, repeated them. It was poetry in motion.

I hesitate to describe an amazing hour in a few short paragraphs, but here goes. (Forgive me, Bryan!)

  1. Proximity: leaders must be present. And by proximity, he means close! To create change, leaders must be seen and engaged with their teams. But it is more than that. To create change we must know intimately the environments and structures that we are trying to change and see first-hand the suffering of those in need of change. Personally, this was an important reminder to me and my team of the need to get out of 5D40 and Saskatoon much more frequently.
  2. We must change the narrative. Bryan repeatedly emphasized that oppression and injustice are often based and justified on misinformation and the narratives of the victors. He emphasized the need every day to change the narrative.
  3. We must remain hopeful. Change is hard and advocating for change is draining. Challenging the narrative upsets people. He said, “Hope is our superpower!”
  4. Change only happens when we do things that make us uncomfortable. In this message, Bryan was clear it was not just those on the receiving end of change who will be uncomfortable. Those advocating for change must also be uncomfortable and must be empathetic towards all who are experiencing change.

My summary has done great injustice to an amazing talk; I will definitely be buying his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and learning more.

It was a great conference, and I only hope I can incorporate some of what I learned to serve you better. As always, I welcome your feedback.