Strengths vs. The Other Stuff

As all of you know, surgeons aren’t always the warmest and the most cuddly of people. I know! Hard to believe, right? Well, although this may not apply to all surgeons, I’m sure that most of us have known a few colleagues who fit that brusque stereotype perfectly. I know that Dr. House from the television series wasn’t a surgeon by trade… but from a personality standpoint, it could have been a coin toss. We as a group don’t have the best reputation when it comes to being patient, good listeners or thoughtful of others.

This prickly bedside manner isn’t exclusive to the surgeons’ club. We all see a colleague’s name show up on our caller ID from time to time that makes us cringe… It doesn’t mean this person isn’t nice. It doesn’t mean that this person doesn’t know what he/she is doing. And it certainly doesn’t mean that this colleague isn’t great fun at parties. Sometimes in the context of the workplace– and especially in the high-stakes emotional turmoil of the healthcare world– we behave differently. And that’s a problem sometimes.


I know that when I’m in the middle of a very stressful OR case, I can be rude sometimes. Not in a degrading way to my colleagues and support staff– it’s more of a I-need-it-now! kind of way. In fact, if I know that I have a particularly bad emergency case to start, I often turn to my scrub nurses and apologize in advance. “I’m going to be really impatient, and I might not always be polite or socially correct,” I say. “It’s not you. It’s all on me. Just bear with me, okay?” Everyone in that emergency case knows what’s coming, and they know that I, as the surgeon, have the responsibility to fix whatever is wrong so this patient doesn’t die. I might not always think before I open my mouth. I know this about myself. I try to be respectful and appreciative of my staff in every other setting. So knowing that my personality is going to shift towards the difficult end of the spectrum, I find that by acknowledging my shortcomings and asking for people to meet me halfway during this crisis, things turn out better. Of course, I try to always be mindful and respectful… but in the case of massive bleeding, manners may not be the foremost thing on my brain.

In the same way, we all have blind spots. Sometimes we say and do things that under other circumstances, we would never do. Why? What is it about that situation that makes us behave in a certain way, regardless if we know better?


It’s true– we have a network. In fact, we have a variety of networks. At home, at work, at the golf course, at PTA meetings… In each scenario, people have different perceptions of us. Perhaps we are leaders. Perhaps in some settings, we are more laid back. It just depends. In each case, however, your relationship to others may affect your reactions and your performance. In the same manner, your setting may affect how others react and perform in your presence. Your direct report might take on a certain demeanor in your clinic, but if you run into that person out at a restaurant? That conversation might be very different. Even in a work setting, you may find that how you and your assistant communicate may change if you’re in front of a patient or if you’re in the back office. Neither is necessarily good or bad– it’s just different.

So what is your baseline? What innate strengths do you have that you tend to bring to a situation? What “other” traits do you also tend to carry with you? I don’t want to say that these are weaknesses… Nothing is really a weakness. But some personality traits might be more desirable in certain situations than others. How can you figure out these complex relationships so that you can put your best foot forward?

Man, they never talked about this in medical school…


As a surgeon in the bad old days, we were taught never to show any signs of weakness. Leadership training? Diversity discussions? None of these were highly regarded during training. In fact, these were often looked upon as HR requirements that we were forced to sit through in order to check some GME box. It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized that some of this has real value.

As a chief resident, my class was sent for some kind of “chief resident leadership” workshop right before our year started. At the time, it was a day away from work where we could all sit over lunch and divide up rotation schedules in peace– not all bad. One of the activities they had us go through, however, was a Myers-Briggs assessment. If you haven’t done this at some point, it’s a personality assessment that has been performed widely over many years. Basically, the research has shown that the four-letter personality combination you test at remains stable over several decades of your life– your test result at 10-years old should be the same at 40-years old. Interesting… I will say that I’ve flipped my test result a bit over the years between introvert and extrovert, but I have found this to be essentially true.

When we took this test, my resident classmates and I didn’t think much of it. When I went back to do my MBA at the University of Michigan, however, we had a more useful experience. Our entire class spent a day with Jeff de Graff, the author of The Innovation Code as he walked us through his personality assessment model. Unlike the Myers-Briggs model, his approach was highly functional: you have only four tendency categories that are assessed, and your test tells you what blend of the categories you are. His categories tend to balance each other. If you are more data-driven, this score might be higher than your free-form creativity score. If you are more authoritarian, your HR/people skills score might be a bit lower. de Graff uses a color scheme to define this. It was such a robust model that my MBA class used it for our entire two-year program: my teammate would often make a comment that his “red” tendencies were coming through when he shared a particularly detailed and glorious Excel model with us during an evening conference. We would all chuckle because we instantly understood what he meant! No further explanation was needed. This approach actually pre-empted some disagreements along the way. Hey! I’m a Blue! Sorry if I sounded a bit bossy there…


de Graff’s model got me thinking as I did a little self-reflection over my MBA years… I had spent many years defining myself as a “surgeon.” But what did this really amount to at the end of the day? I didn’t feel like I fit that classic TV-doctor stereotype, nor did I want to. And what if I hadn’t gone into surgery? Or healthcare in general? What if I had a been a “regular” person? What did I bring to the table that wasn’t solely dependent on my medical license and board certifications? As physicians, we are often pigeonholed. You’re a doctor. You can’t be anything else because, well… you’re a doctor. But you had character strengths that got you into this career, right? Did those magically disappear when medical school slapped that label upon you? What have you carried with you along the way, and what did your training make you jettison? Because despite what people may claim, residency changes you. It’s often for the better… but not always.

After a bit of soul-searching and internet digging, I came across the Clifton Strengths Finder site. I found this to be particularly helpful. After years of surgical training and evaluations and more degrading feedback than anyone should ever have to endure [because as we all know, surgeons tend to eat their young], I found this site to be a little oasis. The basic premise of the Clifton approach is to identify your strengths. Forget about your weak points– who needs them? Rather than spend your energy trying to be something you’re not, what if you devoted time developing valuable skills you already possess? Wow! Talk about working at your maximum potential! I loved this idea. After taking this test and looking at my results, I felt like I was reading a mirror of my soul. Cheesy, I know… but it gave me great clarity as to what I should continue to strive for and what I should perhaps let slide in life. You can’t get everything done. Something will get left on the table. At the end of the day, you just have to hope that you picked up all of the truly important things when you were loading up your pockets.


Your time is valuable. How can you make your day count? Yes, you can make little checklists or “bucket lists” as you go through life, but that can take a lot of energy. Wouldn’t it be helpful to go into your routine knowing what you can do easily and knowing where you should ask for help?

Despite what medical school or your attending may have told you, take a minute to examine your strengths. It’s worth it. You have much to accomplish! Make the most of what you’ve got. It may be a little touchy-feely, but as humans… that’s what we do.


So if you haven’t seen the TLS Leadership Blueprint in the past, it might be worth a click. Take a minute to reflect on the structure of your life and how others relate to you. We sometimes take these details for granted.

As for the personality assessments mentioned here, I should state up front that I am not associated in any way with these sites or entities. I just found them to be valuable. I hope you take a few minutes to look them over. If you decide to spend a little time to actually take these tests and think about your results, so much the better. As I’ve gone on in my career, I see so much value in these reflections. I wish that someone had knocked me over the head with them back in my younger days.

As always, I hope that these musing give you pause. If you find another site or self-reflection useful along the way, it would be great to hear your feedback! These are only what I’ve found to be helpful along the way and are by no means comprehensive. Definitely room for dialogue in this category…

Be open to new ideas, my friends, no matter how squishy they may seem. You might surprise yourself. But draw the line at drum circles and group sharing that involves a bouncing ball. Those meetings never end well. Ever.

Until next time…


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