Management Consultant Mike Eldon

What must you do well to be a great doctor?

Like me, you have sat with doctors who related to you as a live human being, vulnerable and anxious… and also with others who just honed in on your specific health problem and confined themselves to the technical task of solving only that. You have experienced the whole spectrum from medics possessed of a wonderful bedside manner to those with no awareness of even where the bedroom is.

With the disconnected technical kind you will have wondered how such highly trained professionals, people who wanted to be healers of the sick and who have studied for so many years, can have missed out on so much. Neither do they examine us holistically nor do they relate to us as emotional entities. What was going on when they were selected for medical school? Should they have been admitted at all? And how is it that those selecting the topics covered in these schools didn’t think it necessary to fill in such glaring gaps?

Increasingly however, programmes to develop medical practitioners, like ones producing other technical professionals – be they accountants, engineers, lawyers, technologists or others – have been including subjects that were hitherto beyond the narrow technical scope of their studies. More and more it dawned on curriculum developers that they urgently needed to broaden the development of their students.

One good example is business schools, traditionally renowned for churning out mere number-crunchers, heartless folk who lacked soul. Many B-Schools – but by no means all – have come to appreciate that “the new hard is soft”. In other words, however necessary it is to be financially literate, such skills are far from sufficient in a rounded business professional. Not before time, B-School leaders realised that the major challenge of the day is to mold individuals who combine technical with interpersonal skills, men and women who can lead responsibly and humanely, taking care of their staff and their customers as well as of the society in which they live. This indeed is the bigger challenge, the one that requires courage and imagination.

I was delighted that when I studied at the London Business School in the early seventies my courses included one on leadership as seen through the lens of literature, in which we studied great – not to mention flawed – leaders as portrayed by the likes of Socrates and Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Moliere. (This, by the way, thanks to the influence of my favourite management guru, Professor Charles Handy.) Likewise, in my economics undergraduate programme I was able to select political thought and French existentialist literature as two of my options. These courses provoked deep and broad reflection at a critical stage in my evolution as a person, and through them I learned much about myself and how I related to those around me.

These thoughts came to my mind as I read a recent Wall Street Journal article on the revamping of the American Medical College Admission Test. “One hundred years ago, all you really needed to know was the science,” commented Dr. Catherine Lucey, a member of the committee that reviewed the test. “Now we have problems like obesity and diabetes that require doctors to form therapeutic alliances with patients and convince them to change their lifestyle.”

So a quarter of the heavily revised test – taken for the first time last month by 8,200 aspiring doctors in America and by more than ten times that number globally – covers psychology, sociology and the biological foundations of behaviour, together with concepts such as social inequality and class and ethnic discrimination. Other new sections test critical-thinking and statistical reasoning, and background material covers concepts such as “power, privilege and prestige”.

“Change is hard,” said Dr. Lucey. “We are trying to send a message that in order to be a highly effective physician you need to have a foundation in a broad variety of domains.” An important message to absorb, and not just for physicians.

Too many young people were only attracted to their profession by its technical challenges. Their aptitude lay there, and when they absorbed themselves in the wonders of science or the grandeur of the law or the intricacies of accounting they felt at home, becoming stronger and stronger in their chosen domain.

As they complete their studies and enter the workplace, at first this can work well for them. Just as it was in their studies, it’s just them and their technical task. But the more they progress in their field, whichever it may be and before very long, the more they must interact with other people and the more they must understand the financial context within which they operate. Yet for many it is not what they were expecting, and it is not what they were prepared for.

Some find it possible to expand their comfort zones, overcoming earlier assumptions that such non-technical matters were simply not for them. For others however, the realisation comes too late. They get stuck, and are unable to develop their careers further. It’s a sad scenario, one that readily leads to frustration and bitterness.

As a talented software engineer once put it to me, “When I was at university I did a great job building my technical muscles, but I neglected building those needed for communicating with my colleagues and customers.” Having left the realisation so late he knew it was going to be much harder than had he been introduced to such skills as a young man.

I don’t know how many professors read Business Daily. But for those who do, along with members of professional associations who influence the ground that is covered by the generation that will take over from them, I hope they take this issue very seriously. The future of the young men and women who will soon be following in their footsteps depends on it. Let them not end up feeling inadequate and bewildered, as too many of their predecessors did.

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