If my Twitter feed is any indication, it seems Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” is being widely read this summer – at least it’s been read by some of the women I follow. It was one of my cottage books this year and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Sandberg’s perspective on women in leadership. Sandberg is currently COO of Facebook. Recent indicators suggest that Facebook is thriving under her operational leadership. I found the insights in her book about women in leadership to be wise, perceptive and candid. Still, it didn’t fully jive with my experience. I’d like to add some additional notes from my perspective.
Medicine is quite different from the world of business. Women in medicine have made huge strides in attaining positions of leadership even in the last few years. When I took the role of Chief of the Department of Family Medicine at Markham Stouffville Hospital in 2008, I was only one of 2 women who were Chiefs at our hospital and I was only the 3rd woman ever to be a Chief in the University of Toronto’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. In the past five years I have seen several women added to the table in both organizations.
In fact it is remarkable how many women are now in powerful positions in the field of medicine and health. Here are examples of women who lead some organizations with which I work:
- CEO, Markham Stouffville Hospital – Janet Beed
- CEO, Central LHIN (Local Health Integration Network) – Kim Baker
- CEO, College of Family Physicians of Canada – Francine Lemire
- Dean, University of Toronto School of Medicine – Catharine Whiteside
- Chair, Department of Family and Community Medicine at U of T – Lynn Wilson
- Minister of Health, Ontario – Deb Matthews
- Minister of Health, Canada – Rona Ambrose
While women have made great strides by being selected for these important positions as leaders, the central message of Sandberg’s needs to be heard. In her words, the book “makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious in any pursuit.” I loved so many of her recurrent directives for women: Aim high. Raise your hand. Sit at the table. Don’t be afraid. Lean in.
Clearly, leaning in has worked for Sheryl Sandburg. In fairness, she notes that every woman’s experience will be different. I’d like to point out that there are plenty of options available for women who may not want to (or may not be able to) “lean in” during a segment of their career. I argue that one of the options is the ability to “leapfrog” to leadership when the time is right.
There have been large chunks of time in my career when I was not ambitiously pursuing a leadership role. I spent almost a decade working in rural Niger, in the Sahel region of West Africa – literally half a world away from academic medicine and the Canadian health care system. I also took maternity leave five times and had a season of my life when I practiced as a family doctor but I also spent much of my time caring for our young children. But during those periods I learned profound lessons and made important connections that served me well when it was time to leapfrog into various leadership roles in my career and the community.
In early 2007, I realized that our oldest children would soon be finished high school. I was working full-time as a family physician and leading in some fundraising and health advocacy roles. But I knew then that the time was right to take on greater challenges. I started by enrolling in a Master of Public Health program at the University of Toronto. (I took courses part-time and completed my MPH in 2012.) By 2008 I was asked to apply for the Chief of Family Medicine role at our hospital. In the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of leading the development of a Family Medicine Teaching Unit in Markham as well as playing a key role in the launch of the first Family Medicine training program in Ethiopia. I was able to leapfrog into all those leadership roles in part because everything I had done until that point in my career was informing and preparing me for something bigger.
As I read Sandberg’s book, I was thinking about my young female medical colleagues and how I would advise in terms of leaning in. In my current professional role, I have recruited seven young women in the past three years to be core faculty physicians at our Family Health Team. They are at that challenging stage when most of them want to combine childbearing and childrearing with the establishment of their careers. Each one of them is an inspiration to me as they take on this challenge with personal and professional integrity.
When they “lean in”, I laud and support them 100%. One of my colleagues chose to spend her maternity leave taking a master’s program in England at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. That’s what I’d call leaning in. She’s brilliant and ambitious. Her husband was a wonderful support, caring for their newborn while she attended courses. What a great way to start a family.
But I’d also tell them, it’s safe to ease back for a season of undefined length. The opportunities for leadership and advancement in an academic medical career will not go away. I encourage them to seek and accept as many leadership roles as they desire at this point but they don’t need to be afraid that they can’t jump back in after a certain hiatus in career development. In fact, when the time is right, I am convinced they can leapfrog to the important roles for which they will be well prepared.
I’m grateful that I get to be a leader and mentor to so many talented women. I learn as much from them as they ever learn from me. Probably my favourite lesson from Sandberg’s book was not her own words, but her recollection of a new definition of leadership that she learned at Harvard Business School. They taught her: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” That is exactly the kind of leader I seek to be – one who enables and empowers others to unleash their own potential.
Sandberg’s book was liberating in many ways. She described the need for women to support one another saying: “We all want the same thing: to feel comfortable with our choices and to feel validated by those around us. So let’s start by validating one another.” That point cannot be overemphasized.
Let’s face it. Most of the world’s women don’t have the luxury of choice. I’d like to help build a world where all women have the social, economic and educational advantages that I’ve had. When women do have choice, I want to affirm any choice that is made freely.
I’d like a world where all women can choose to do what they love and love what they do. I hope I can work with the people around me to advance that goal.