Leadership is about “unlearning” as much as it is about “learning.”

Dr Shunitra CS

Working as a doctor in clinical practice is tough not just for the work hours, working conditions, and responsibility of a patient’s life in your hands but the sheer mental strength it demands from you continuously. It is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, without a float, when you just completed the theory to swimming so far.

Such intense experiences reshape you as a person from who you were as a child or student at college. As you grow in your career and land leadership roles, some of the personality traits that develop from such experiences can be helpful or counterproductive to your success.

So, one of the most helpful things to do in one’s journey to leadership is to self-reflect. Analyse your actions, reactions, communication, and decisions with the intent to learn and self-improve. This powerful step will help you realise that the journey to becoming a great leader is more than just learning about leadership, but equally about unlearning some of your behaviours and beliefs to succeed.

Here are a few things I unlearnt as I transitioned from clinical practice to corporate leadership in my personal journey.

A busy day is a productive day

In clinical practice, one is constantly chasing for time, trying to serve as many patients as possible and quantity often takes precedence over quality especially in public service. How fast you clear the clinic or how many cases you complete in theatre within time translates positively into measures of productivity.

As a corporate leader though, you will likewise be consumed by a busy calendar with requests to provide input to others on their work, attend many meetings and get involved on everything that is going on in the organisation which would initially feel purposeful and valuable however you will very quickly learn that it is in fact one of the biggest distractions you would have to fight constantly as it pulls you away from achieving your own goals and creating your unique impact for the organisation.  

In a corporate role, you are hired as an expert to create a specific value that is critical for the success of the organisation. No one else in the organisation is able to or is working on this value besides you. You are also expected to figure out what this value would look like and to drive this unique contribution into impact for the organisation. This is the leadership expected from you at the start of your corporate journey.

So being a leader does mean extremely busy days with a full calendar every day, but you will need to unlearn spending it on quantity of work and focus on quality of work instead by owning the agenda of your time and driving your unique value for the success within the organisation.

You are not expected to do things you don’t know or have not done before.  

As a doctor in practice, we first watch someone insert a chest tube or perform a lumbar puncture before doing some supervised and then perhaps some independently. This tunes our minds to expect training and guidance on how to do something new including when we move into corporate roles and leadership positions.

In leadership, there is no theory, supervision or guidelines and it is not uncommon that you would rarely face two similar situations ever in your leadership journey. You may reach out to others for help or ideas however, you will ultimately have to decide and proceed in a way that is uniquely you.

This is why leadership is not just earned but entrusted upon individuals who showcase a worthy ability to think and manage a variety of situations soundly. How one chooses to handle situations and the outcomes achieved as a consequence greatly determine how one is perceived on their abilities as a leader.

What is comforting though is that as doctors, our diagnostic approach to problem solving and crisis management skills are an advantage in corporate situations so doctors can make good leaders. Great leaders approach situations with the mindset of everything is ‘figureoutable’ if you are willing to roll up your sleeves, get to doing it and learn!

Making the right decision is better than just making any decision

This is a tough one that takes time and courage to unlearn for doctors moving into corporate roles because we are trained to make the right decision every time as wrong decisions could cost us a patient’s life. Even in a rush, it is warranted to do all necessary tests and referrals needed to make the right decision for our patient.

In corporate roles, this part of our training translates into risk aversity, over reliance on information and impacts our ability to make decisions unless it feels absolutely right.

Leadership is hard because it requires making decisions fast, amidst ambiguity, uncertainty of outcome, with the interest of the organisation at heart and with full accountability for the consequences. The key to timely decisions here lies in being comfortable with taking anticipated risks and acting with mitigation on time. 

Confidence to lead in this manner comes with time and experience. Good leaders make decisions quickly, great leaders make decisions quickly and course correct even faster for success.

In conclusion, embracing the mindset of unlearning could unlock you from who you are today to becoming that leader you aspire to be in future. It prepares you for change agility which is a strong suit of seasoned leaders who could even steer an entire organisation to unlearn what might have worked in the past in order to thrive with new ways of achieving success in the future.

To say leadership is a continuous learning journey deceivingly hides the effort on unlearning that is equally necessary to succeed. I hope this insight inspires you in preparing for your journey as a great leader someday.

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