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Driving Change panel: Doctor built on early aspiration to lead

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of what will be 24 examples of leadership profiled in our yearlong series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today Lindsay McCabe, executive director of the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Marys University of Minnesota, comments on aspects of leadership presented in Mayos innovation team thinks big, moves fast to transform medical care.

Dr. Nicholas LaRusso
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Dr. Nicholas LaRusso

I couldn’t wait to ask Lindsay McCabe what he thought about Dr. Nicholas LaRusso’s take on leadership.

During an interview at the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation, LaRusso told me this: “I think leadership can be taught, and I think it can be refined and nurtured. But I think some people more naturally gravitate to it.”

Well, McCabe looks at leadership from multiple angles as the executive director of the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

So what did he think?

“Really correct,” McCabe said.

LaRusso aspired to leadership at an early age by running for positions such as class president and captain of the football team. Clearly, he had a desire to lead. The key was how he built on that.

“You do things naturally based on the skills and abilities that you build over time,” McCabe said. “So it’s developmental, too.”

Yes, there are natural leaders, McCabe said.

“But I think it’s a mix,” he added.

Effective leadership often emerges from some triggering moment — from rising to meet a need or a crisis. So someone might have a tendency toward leadership, but the event or the context often makes it happen.

Leadership base
LaRusso had a solid base for bringing together the natural and developmental factors that add up to strong leadership.

“He talks about being in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, being in a competitive environment, being in a Jesuit school where it’s clear you are expected to give back in some way to the community and to people,” McCabe said. “Those are all great foundations for being a leader and a good leader.”

Another factor that LaRusso emphasized while talking to me was failure, the humbling lessons that spring from your own mistakes.

It is not at all strange that LaRusso would bring that up, McCabe said.

“You remember your failures and learn from them, hopefully, so you will not repeat your failures,” he said.

What truly mattered, though, was that LaRusso was spurred by failure. When he narrowly missed a chance to skip a grade in school, he knuckled down, driven to excel. When he failed a test in college, he felt compelled to prove himself academically.

“It seemed like he was angry but also motivated to do something about it, to take charge,” McCabe said. “You have to learn from your limitations and maybe your vulnerabilities, but you also have to use them to go forward in your life, to be motivated do something.”

That motivation fed another leadership quality: LaRusso’s unflinching determination to work hard.

“He said he is willing to work really hard — harder than others — and that creates an interesting role model for people who work with him,” McCabe said. “So as a follower your expectation is that you not only are going to solve the problem and to be part of the solution, but you also are going to work hard on it.”

The sum of the background factors is that LaRusso presents a strong self image, something McCabe said is necessary in a leader.

“Having a strong concept of yourself helps you actually lead others,” he said. “You have that confidence — whether it’s based on religion, positive standards or practice — and that’s what makes it work. Then you have to persuade other people to do similar kinds of things with their skills and abilities.”

Leading with relationships
LaRusso’s motivation to succeed may explain his creative reach to build relationships, to cultivate partners and collaborators from outside conventional medical circles.

“The more perspective you throw on a problem, the better it is because you bring in ideas that can be tossed around and discussed — that, hopefully, can help move you forward,” McCabe said. 

“As Dr. LaRusso points out, scientists concentrate on finding a cure for disease or the right treatment,” McCabe said. “That’s noble. But opening it up to a larger perspective just makes it that much better because it becomes an evolving process for treatment.”

In particular, LaRusso is innovating by incorporating design thinking into his mission to improve medical systems.

“I think that’s a great perspective to bring into health care … whether you are talking about room design or treatment,” McCabe said.

“It’s just practical and logical in my mind to do those kinds of things because it opens up other views …  If Dr. LaRusso is responsible for that, he can take some pride in it because those are the ways you solve those complicated problems with health research and especially with health care.”

LaRusso’s innovative drive is coming at a time of immense public concern over the cost of health care and whether adequate treatment will be available for the largest ever generation of senior citizens.

The complexity of the challenge calls for creative solutions such as the electronic visits the Mayo Clinic now offers to many patients who need follow up care.

“If those are the kinds of things that Dr. LaRusso and the Center work with, they have a great start … at dealing with problems that are complex and that can be solved through creativity and innovation,” McCabe said. 

To be sure, a health-care giant like Mayo should be expected to lead in such innovation. But that can’t be taken for granted.

“You need to constantly work at improving patient treatment and care — the treatment of human beings,” McCabe said. “And they are doing that very well.”

Working the zone
McCabe was intrigued by something LaRusso said near the end of his interview with me. Like a great downhill run on skis, LaRusso said, creative innovation is hard to describe. You have to be there to realize the thrill of it.

“There are people who are really passionate and happy who work in a zone where they accomplish things,” McCabe said. “There is a great feeling and emotion in doing that. … A fair number of leaders when they are doing those things get totally consumed by it. The part that is hard to describe is that you are in the zone. You are totally focused on what you are doing. You are consumed by it.”

It is, indeed, hard to describe that intensity.

“You need to experience it to enjoy it,” McCabe said. “I think that’s really true.”

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