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Introducing the host of Cleveland Clinic podcast Beyond Leadership Dr. Brian Bolwell, who shares his ongoing leadership journey with Gina Cronin, Chief Talent Officer of Cleveland Clinic. This long-time physician leader has a passion for connecting with caregivers, instinctively knowing that at the intersection of humility and leadership, three fundamental principles define what matters most.

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Dr. Brian Bolwell's Journey of Humility and Leadership

Podcast Transcript

Intro: Welcome to Beyond Leadership at the intersection of leadership and everything else. In this Cleveland Clinic podcast, we will commingle with extraordinary thinkers and explore the impact of their ideas and experiences on leadership and management.

Gina Cronin:  Hello, I'm Gina Cronin. I serve as chief talent officer at Cleveland Clinic and am honored to guide leadership and development for our 66,000 caregivers throughout our health system globally. Today, we have the opportunity to enjoy some coffee and good dialogue with Dr. Brian Bolwell, the host of Beyond Leadership podcast. And what we'd like to do over the next few minutes is really learn more from Brian about his experiences, and his outlook on what leadership means.

              But by way of introduction, Brian serves as the director of physician leadership and development here at Cleveland Clinic. But he has deep clinical practice and leadership practice over the past 30 years, caring for and leading the treatment for cancer patients; clinical expertise in bone marrow transplant. Brian is also currently the chairman of the Taussig Cancer Institute at Cleveland Clinic. And has really spearheaded patient access ensuring that cancer patients have very rapid treatment to life-saving treatments. So, good morning, Brian. Great to hear you.

Brian Bolwell, MD: Hi, Gina. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Gina Cronin: Absolutely. So why don't we go right in and hear a little bit from you about your own experience. And we know that our caregivers and people outside of our organization are always really eager to learn about the journey that our leaders have taken. Almost like there's a recipe. And you have served in a number of leadership positions, whether it's from national clinical trials, governance positions at Cleveland Clinic. How did you get here?

Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, I think that my recipes probably not a great one to follow, but I'd be happy to share my journey. I came here as a leukemia doctor back in 1987. And within 18 months of starting, I was basically handed the leadership of the bone marrow transplant program. Because the two other individuals who were performing transplants left the organization. And so I was, I think from a leadership perspective, very naive. But I was a pretty good doc. And so my focus was to try to make the program as good as we could clinically. And we were able to do that. And interestingly, I kind of had this intuitive thought at the time that I needed to build a good team. And certainly the more I've learned about leadership over the years, building teams is certainly an essential component to leadership.

              But we built research; we started to make the program somewhat known nationally, and we had a lot of growth in the program. So that was all very satisfying. And along the way, Gina, I actually did have other leadership opportunities. I was elected to the board of governors, and then I was appointed as a vice chief of staff in the chief of staff's office. And I led the space committee, which here at the Clinic, is pretty important committee because we decide who gets what space, and everybody wants more space. And so that becomes something that you wind up getting to know everybody pretty quickly, because they're always coming at you asking for more space.

              But I think that the inflection point for me from a leadership perspective was about 17, 18 years ago, when I was on the executive committee of the organization. And we all had a very deep 360 [Feedback Review], which is, for those of you listening to this who don't know what a 360 is, basically people who work with you are asked about your leadership style, and your leadership skills, your strengths, your weaknesses. And the 360 that was done at the time for us on the executive committee was a pretty thorough one, in which, we all had two different executive development coaches and they did in person interviews with about 12 stakeholders. And then they presented a report to me, a 25-page report in which they went over my strengths and my weaknesses. And I was assuming that most of the report would talk about my strengths.

              And then--boy, was--I was wrong. I was greeted with a report that devoted about 24 and three quarters pages to my weaknesses and maybe a quarter of a page to my strengths, whatever that strength was. Which was really important for me to hear and was a very important lesson for me to learn. I think that through my initial leadership journey, primarily of running the bone marrow transplant program, I was a very passionate patient advocate. And I think that was good, but it also came at a cost. And I think the cost was, I didn't realize enough the importance of, number one, supporting your team and, the importance that your team is to care about any sort of task or goal, as well as the importance of communication, the importance of transparency.

              And so, you can take these things one of two ways. You can kind of deny them and say, well, I'm actually not that bad. Or you can actually internalize it and say, all right, what do I need to do to get better? And I want to get better. I want to be as good a leader as I possibly can be.

              And so, in my case, I've always kind of been interested in psychology. I actually kind of minor in psychology in college. And I started to read books on leadership. And I started to study leadership and I wanted to get better at it. And it was pretty cool because I learned a lot of things that I didn't know. And then the trick, Gina, is of course, you have to change your behavior. I mean, having knowledge about leadership isn't good enough. If you're going to improve, you have to change what you do and you have to change how you do it. And that's been my journey for the past 18 or so years. I continue to try to learn as much as I can. I continue to try to improve as much as I can. And I'm quite self-reflective of how I do. Almost every conversation that I have I tend to reflect back and think, what could I have done better? Or usually, it's what did I mess up?

              It's not easy in a virtual world to have a totally seamless conversation sometimes. And I frequently fear that I need to do better figuring out how to do ZOOM conversations. But I'm always thinking about what I can do to get better, because I'm always thinking that I probably didn't do as well as I could've. So that, in brief, is kind of how I landed, where I am.

Gina Cronin: Thanks for sharing that, Brian. And I'd love to follow up for a second, the 360 feedback that you got and how pivotal that was to you and your growth. And for those who aren't familiar with 360, that's really, it's a 360 view and you're hearing from everyone. From your boss, your managers, your peers, your direct reports. There's a quote that says: “pain plus reflection equals progress.” And you had to have humility in that moment. And here you are, a leader of one of the world's greatest cancer centers; Harvard trained. How does humility and leadership work together?

Brian Bolwell, MD: I love that quote, Gina. I think that's essential. I think if you think that you know it all, you're not either being honest with yourself or you're somewhat naive. You never know at all. I think that people in academic medicine like to get As. I mean, we do really well academically. Most of us have and study really hard. And hearing negative feedback is very difficult and it did cause pain for me. And I think that that was important. Because I think that that sort of discomfort was necessary for me to seriously want to change and get better. Because all of us think that our intentions are noble.

All of us think that we're always trying to do the right thing. And if people could only see things from our perspective, it would make sense. But if your message is misinterpreted or that's not how people view you, then all your good intentions don't really mean very much if the message isn't delivered in a way that people can grasp and believe. I mean, you have to be authentic.

              I think humility is essential and I've become my own biggest critic. I'm not sure that that's the healthiest thing in the world, but in any event you have to believe that you can always learn. And these days it's interesting. I get people sending me things about leadership. And I'm just thinking that this week somebody sent me an article talking about how one of the requirements of leaders is that they read. Good leaders, read all the time. And I think that means that they trying to absorb information about not just leadership, about how teams work, how organizations work. And they're always trying to figure out how to do things a little better. But I think that they're both important. I think that humility is key. And again, at least for me, having the pain or discomfort was essential for me to change.

Gina Cronin: Thanks, Brian. And in the many conversations we've had, what I most appreciate is your ability to take complex problems whether it's organizational structure or clinical, and really distill them down to what matters most. So with that being said, what do you think is most important for a leader?

Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, this is something I've thought a lot about, Gina, and I think it comes down to three fundamental principles. And they are: number one, It's Not About You; number two, It's All About You; and number three, kind of to your point, that you have to be able to Focus On What's Important. So in order, I think that fundamentally leadership is about supporting other people. And in healthcare, I think that supporting your employees is every bit as important as supporting your patients. And I think that employee engagement is important. I think that hiring great teams is important. One of my favorite quotes is, “Great teams are magnets for great talent,” and I believe that to be true. And the whole serving leader concept is about upending the pyramid and making your employees more important: the leader. And I really believe that.

              And secondly, It's All About You means you've got to ... character development and leadership development are one and the same. You have to continue to have integrity, to do the right thing, and to have the courage to be vulnerable. I mean, courage is a really important part of leadership because a lot of times you're in very uncomfortable situations and you have to decide what you're going to do. Are you going to live your values and be true to your North Star and do the right thing? Or are you going to not; are you going to do sometimes a more politically expedient thing? It's not to say that you have to fall on your sword every minute of the day. But for the stuff that's really important, I do think that you need to have the courage to live your values. And I think that's essential to good leadership.

              And then finally, ultimately leaders have to deliver results. And so how do you do that? And there's all sorts of things to remember and classes to attend to try to figure that out. But, I've always thought that within a very complex environment, if you can distill it, the challenge is down to the core essential challenges. And if you do those well, generally everything else is going to be okay.

So in healthcare, in running a big clinical enterprise like the Cancer Center, I think it comes down to your employees, your patients; and your patients mean delivering great care and having very good quality as well as having really good access. I mean, you mentioned that earlier, access is really important to me.

              And then the third thing is to be a good steward of the organization, which means growth. And you have to be financially accountable. For those of us in the Cancer Center, trying to cure cancer and being forward thinking from a research perspective is also very important. But, so even if you just keep it to those four, that's a lot more manageable, I think, than focusing on 150 different metrics that you may, in fact, be judged on, on a scorecard, and sometimes information comes very quickly and it comes in different ways in different places. But you still got to be able to siphon off the extraneous stuff and really focus on the core. That's always what it comes down to. And at least that's worked for me.

Gina Cronin: So as we're launching Beyond Leadership, why this podcast and why now?

Brian Bolwell, MD: Well, we think that at the clinic, part of our mission is to educate. And when I recruit physicians, I talk about the fact that we're a little different than most academic medical centers because we make a commitment to the people over their entire career. A lot of academic medical centers, the first three or four years are really important to a new faculty member to kind of publish or perish. Maybe it's not quite that draconian, but there is that that's embedded in a lot of the academic cultures. And we're committed to try to develop people over their entire career.

              And so you couple that with the fact that we have a major interest in teaching leadership to our physicians. We think there's a pretty healthy appetite for that throughout the country and beyond the country. And one of the things that we thought we’d do is not just talk to healthcare leaders, but talk to leaders from other industries. And get their take on leadership and see how that can be applicable in a very broad way to leadership in general. So we think the timing is pretty good. And we're actually very pleased with the podcasts that we have planned. And we certainly hope that that our audience likes them, as well.

Gina Cronin: Well, thank you, Brian. I think it was terrific to hear more from you. And I know there's lots of exciting leadership podcasts planned ahead where we can delve into different topics with you in the host realm. As we close out this introductory episode, we want to have the listeners get to know you with just a quick lightning round of choice questions. So I'll run them by you. And then we'll wrap up. So the first is: telling or listening?

Brian Bolwell, MD: Listening. I mean, it's more important to listen. You've got to listen.

Gina Cronin: Coffee or chocolate?

Brian Bolwell, MD: I actually like diet Dr. Pepper.

Gina Cronin: Third choice. Physician white coat or business suit coat?

Brian Bolwell, MD: I don't think that's an either/or. I'm very proud of my skills as a clinician. And so of course I wear a white coat for that, but I think that there are forums where wearing a business coat is appropriate. But if I had to pick, I'd probably pick my white coat.

Gina Cronin: Browns or Steelers? [American football teams]

Brian Bolwell, MD: Browns.

Gina Cronin: And lastly, teaching or learning?

Brian Bolwell, MD: Ooh, I like both. But I'm very into learning, Gina. I want to keep getting better. I want to keep reading. I want to try to figure out how to... But part of the reason why I want to learn is I want to learn how to teach this better. I think that my teaching skills need work. I think I can improve significantly in teaching leadership and I'm very much looking forward to trying to do that.

Gina Cronin: Thank you very much, Brian. This has been great getting to know you, hearing your insights on leadership. And really excited for Beyond Leadership.

Brian Bolwell, MD: Thank you very much, Gina. I appreciate all of your help during this journey.

Conclusion: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Beyond Leadership. We welcome any topic ideas, comments, or questions about this, or any past episodes. Email us at or by clicking on the link in the show notes.

Beyond Leadership
Beyond Leadership VIEW ALL EPISODES

Beyond Leadership

Host Dr. Brian Bolwell escorts you through a network of thought leaders, sharing world-class insight on leadership and cutting-edge hospital management approaches. They will inspire and perhaps compel you to reinvent your practices – and yourself.

Developed and managed by Cleveland Clinic Global Executive Education.

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