10 Things We Can Learn From the World's Greatest Surgeon

Physician, Innovator, Renegade


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Cardiac Guru • Pioneer of Innovation • Trailblazer

Michael DeBakey Will be Missed!

On July 12, 2008, the world lost an incredible talent. A renegade physician, a pioneer, the father of open-heart surgery, and perhaps the best surgeon who ever lived, Dr. Michael DeBakey died of natural causes at 99. Because of his groundbreaking research, cutting-edge medical devices and maverick approach to cardiac surgery, DeBakey literally changed the rules of the game and thousands of lives are saved each day.

What can we learn from Michael DeBakey’s life and career?

1. Build your brand.

With a career that spanned more than 70 years, DeBakey built a reputation for being indispensable. His patients included everyone from the ordinary person next door and people with no means to a list of Who’s Who among world leaders. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, President Boris Yeltsin, King Hussein of Jordan, the Shah of Iran, Turkish President Turgut Ozal, just to name a few, engaged DeBakey because they knew he was the best. The Journal of the American Medical Association said in 2005, “Many consider Michael E. DeBakey to be the greatest surgeon ever.” Is your personal brand strong enough that if you left your company, colleagues and customers would have a difficult time getting along without you?

2. Be a guru, thought leader, industry expert.

Dr. DeBakey published more than 1,000 medical reports, research papers, chapters and books on topics related to cardiovascular medicine. He helped establish the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest and most prestigious repository of medical archives. DeBakey played a key role in organizing a specialized medical center system to treat soldiers returning from the war. This system is now the Veterans’ Administration Medical Center System. For his numerous contributions Dr. DeBakey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor, the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest scientific award, and The United Nations Lifetime Achievement Award. Do people see you as a guru in your field? How distinctive is your knowledge base? How well do you garner, contribute and leverage knowledge?

3. Never quit learning.

As a child, DeBakey was required to borrow a book from the library each week and read it. He read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before entering high school. Overseeing cases, consulting with colleagues and mentoring younger surgeons, he made his mark on the world right up to the end. DeBakey performed his last surgery at age 90 and continued to travel the globe giving lectures. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Who would want a 90-year-old surgeon operating on them?” The answer could be, “Someone who’s performed more than 60,000 cardiovascular procedures in his career.” Do you have a reputation for lifelong learning, for continually adding value? When we stop bringing something new to the game, the game is over.

4. Risk more, gain more.

DeBakey took risks others weren’t willing to take to advance medicine. Tubing, clamps, pumps, protocols all bear the mark of DeBakey’s passion for innovation. Yet, product and process innovations often pull people out of their comfort zones and some of DeBakey’s early breakthroughs weren’t accepted initially—in fact they were ridiculed. For example, in 1939, when Drs. DeBakey and Alton Ochsner linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer, many in the medical community derided it. Then in 1964, the Surgeon General confirmed their findings and documented the cause and effect.

There was also skepticism when DeBakey discovered that he could substitute parts of diseased arteries with synthetic (Dacron) grafts—a procedure that enables surgeons to repair aortic aneurysms in the chest and abdomen. He initially figured out how to stitch synthetic blood vessels on his wife’s sewing machine. Now the procedure is widely used.

DeBakey was also the first to perform bypass surgery and the first to perform a successful removal of a blockage of the carotid (main) artery of the neck, a procedure that has become the standard protocol for treating stroke. Those who are unwilling to take risks do not change the world. Is your passion for advancing your field by taking a risk bigger than your fear of rejection or by making a mistake?

5. Refuse to sell out on your dream.

DeBakey developed an interest in medicine in his father’s pharmacy where he listened to physicians talk shop. The vision to become a doctor was clear, the question was, “what kind?” In 1932, there simply wasn’t anything you could do for heart disease, if a patient had a heart attack the long-term prognosis wasn’t good. While he was still in school in 1932, DeBakey invented the roller pump—a critical part of the heart-lung machine that takes over the functions of the heart and lungs during open-heart surgery. This not only created the era of open-heart surgery, it cemented DeBakey’s passion to make a mark in the world of cardiovascular medicine. Engagement is about pouring your heart, mind and soul into a dream that causes you to fire on all cylinders. Does your career fulfill your desires? Or, have you sacrificed a dream that could make you come alive for a life of duty and routine that simply “works”?

6. Play to your genius.

DeBakey said, “I like my work, very much. I like it so much that I don’t want to do anything else.” Most people who are happy in life spend time doing what they love. This usually makes them extremely good at what they do. Dr. DeBakey exemplified the power of what can happen when our work requires what we are good at and passionate about. Playing to your genius is about using your gifts and talents to pursue a passion that makes a significant contribution to the people and the world you serve. Playing to your genius also promotes autonomy and self-direction, cultivates commitment, stimulates personal growth and makes work fun. Are you engaged in work you’re good at and passionate about—work that makes a contribution and needs to be done? Or are you just biding time?

7. Balance passion with discipline and focus.

With regard to his patients, the indefatigable DeBakey had an uncompromising dedication to perfection. He was known as a taskmaster who set very high standards, yet he never demanded more from others than he demanded from himself. Heart surgeons who trained under DeBakey say he was hard to keep up with when making patient rounds. They joked that he was from another world because he could maintain his focus and intensity for hours.

In a world of competing priorities and information overload it’s easy to lose focus and get distracted. But, if you are playing to your genius and doing what you love, it’s easier to be disciplined and maintain a maniacal focus. Are you disciplined? Do you have a maniacal focus? Would your customers (internal and external) say you are relentless when it comes to pursuing perfection?

8. Find a void and figure out how to fill it.

Michael DeBakey’s innovations are on par with the likes of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, Henry Ford and Alfred Nobel. During World War II, he helped establish the mobile army surgical hospitals or MASH units. He was a key player in the development of artificial hearts, artificial arteries and bypass pumps that help keep patients alive who are waiting for transplants. He was among the first to recognize the importance of blood banks and transfusions. He also helped create more than 70 surgical instruments that made procedures easier and clinical outcomes more effective. If something couldn’t be done, DeBakey found a way to do it.

In 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant in South Africa. Dr. DeBakey was among the first to begin doing the procedure in the United States. The problem was that recipients’ bodies rejected the new organs and death rates were high. In the 1980s cyclosporine, a new anti-rejection drug paved the way for organ transplants. Again, DeBakey was among the first to develop new protocols and advance the field of heart transplants. Where are the gaps in your organization or industry? What would happen if you developed a reputation for filling these voids?

9. Show people that their work matters.

Michael DeBakey is known not only for his prolific contributions to the medical field, but also as a symbol of hope and encouragement to his colleagues. Many years ago a colleague of ours shadowed Dr. DeBakey for a day at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. He was struck by DeBakey’s capacity to affirm each person he saw in the course of the day.

In one particular encounter, DeBakey began chatting with an elderly janitor who was sweeping the floor. DeBakey asked the man about his wife and children. He told the older man, obviously not for the first time, that the hospital couldn’t function without the janitor because germs would spread, increasing the chances of infection in the hospital. Later in the day, our colleague tracked down the janitor and asked him, “What exactly do you do? Tell me about your job.” With pride, the janitor replied: “Dr. DeBakey and I? We save lives together.”

He’s right. After all, consider what would happen to our healthcare systems if the cleaning crews went on strike. DeBakey understood that showing the janitor exactly how he contributes to a larger, more heroic cause is crucial. This creates a powerful dynamic. Realizing that he is working toward a worthy goal, the janitor’s perceptions about his work changed. It had new meaning and his enthusiasm for the job was rejuvenated.

Great leaders make time to help people see how their work is connected to something bigger. For a surgeon like DeBakey, those five or ten minutes each day were costly, unless, of course, you consider the productivity generated by a janitor whose work has been transformed. Right now, how many people in your organization are engaged in work that five years from today no one will give a rip about? Can you make the link between what you do and a noble or heroic cause? Can you make this link for others?

10. Be generative—inspire others to pursue the cause.

Generativity is the care and concern for the development of future generations through teaching, mentoring, and other creative contributions. It’s about leaving a positive legacy. All great leaders are generative and Michael DeBakey was no exception. He inspired many medical students to pursue careers in cardiovascular surgery. His reputation brought many people to Baylor College of Medicine and helped transform it into one of the premier medical institutions in the world. DeBakey trained and mentored almost 1,000 surgeons and physicians. In 1976, his students founded the Michael E. DeBakey International Surgical Society. Many of his residents went on to serve as chairpersons and directors of their own successful academic surgical programs in the United States and around the world. Are the people you’ve touched in your career learning, growing and making a difference as a result of your influence? Have they been inspired to build a better world than the world they inherited?

Michael DeBakey applied his problem-solving skills to many parts of medicine that have changed our way of life. Timothy Gardner, M.D., president of the American Heart Association said it well, “DeBakey’s legacy will live on in so many ways—through the thousands of patients he treated directly and through his creation of a generation of physician educators, who will carry his legacy far into the future. His advances will continue to be the building blocks for new treatments and surgical procedures for years to come.”

Michael DeBakey’s life and legacy proves that one person who chooses to play to their genius can change the world and make it a better place for all. What legacy will you leave behind?

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