Lessons on Leadership: NLDS 2018

By Rose Liu

Earlier this semester alongside 9 other Monash Medical Students, I had the wonderful opportunity of attending the AMSA National Leadership Development Seminar (NLDS). I’m writing this piece to share the thought provoking and inspiring lessons shared by the presenters: including what it means to be a good leader, how to be politically engaged and mental health in medicine. Thank you to the NLDS team for their hard work putting together this wonderful event, and to MUMUS and the Monash Medicine Faculty for their generous financial support.

The NLDS brought together a variety of speakers with diverse backgrounds to share their opinion on what makes a good leader. A universal theme carried across all the presentations was the importance of character – namely having integrity, being kind and being humble. Other traits which came up again and again included the ability to build a team and empower team members, being persistent and resilient, creating a safe culture of trust, and being approachable. It was particularly interesting to note how many of the skills required as a leader differed according to context. For example, many of the political leaders emphasised the importance of not blindly accepting the status quo and being able to motivate team members, as the process of advocating for and passing a policy can be very arduous and faced with many roadblocks. Contrastingly, leaders with a more entrepreneurial background emphasised the importance of resourceful problem solving, identifying how problems are formed from first principles, and knowing which problems are viable to solve. It seems like the technical skills required for leadership differ depending on the context, but the foundation of leadership lies in one’s character and ability to work well with others.

The major theme of the conference was political engagement. I’ve always been intimidated by the prospect of being politically engaged after watching Question Time on national television (and much more intimidated after watching Question Time in person). The conference brought in influential political leaders and policy makers whose talks elucidated an empowering message that we as medical students are not just idle observers of policy changes. Rather, medical students can influence policy change through political engagement, such as being involved in advocacy groups, writing to your MP and organising a meeting with your MP. Our efforts can influence issues as diverse as abortion laws, asylum seeker rights and medical workforce policy. It was interesting to hear multiple presenters talk about the unique role of doctors as one of the most trusted community members whose opinions have great influence: one speaker commented that her most successful advocacy campaigns have been when medical students and doctors have been involved, and likewise a former politician explained how politicians love to work with doctors and often try to recruit them. With the immense trust society places in the medical profession, we are in a unique position to influence policy in the best interest of our patients both as doctors and as medical students. 

A confronting topic which recurred throughout the conference was mental health in medicine. The Beyond Blue National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students found that 1 in 5 medical students had suicidal thoughts in the past year, and more than 4 in 10 medical students were highly likely to have a minor psychiatric disorder. Several speakers emphasised the importance of being honest, not just about our strengths but also our vulnerabilities. Too often in medicine, because of both the culture and the type of personality that medical schools inadvertently select for within candidates, medical students and doctors hesitate to reach out for help. To create widespread improvements in the mental health status of medical students, a systemic culture change needs to be implemented: by making it easier to report bullying and harassment, enforcing safe working hours for doctors, and creating avenues of seeking help. A message that really stuck with me is that ‘the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept’: a leader leads by example, and that means confronting and calling out unacceptable behaviour when it occurs and not being a passive bystander. When we progress into senior leadership roles in hospitals it is our responsibility to ensure that we enforce a safe culture for junior doctors and medical students to feel comfortable asking for help and reporting distressing behaviour.

The most exciting take home message from this conference was the idea that as medical students, we do have the ability to have a positive impact in our communities and we are not just passive bystanders to the status quo. This can be through many mediums like political advocacy and entrepreneurship. In my opinion the simplest and most important way we can all be leaders in our everyday lives is through having the character of a leader: one of integrity, kindness and humility.

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