By Ronald WolfDecember 21, 2019
FALLS CHURCH, Virginia -- The Hon. Thomas McCaffery, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, was the invited guest as part of a lecture series hosted by Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the U.S. Army Surgeon General. The lecture was at the Office of the Surgeon General on December 10, 2019. McCaffery discussed his background and work history, told a few stories, discussed elements of leadership, and challenged the audience to "do something that makes you uncomfortable."
McCaffery said he wanted to share thoughts on his approach to leadership and the experiences that helped to shape his leadership philosophy. He began by sharing some of his personal background. His first job was teaching high school for two years.
His interests when he was young included public policy, government and business, and how you set policy "to get things done."
That interest led to his first job, which was as a legislative aide in public policy to the governor of California in Washington, D.C. At that time many state governors had offices in Washington to lobby for the governor on legislative issues that might affect each state. After several years, he opted to return to California, where he continued to work for the governor in health and human services at the California Health and Welfare Agency.
He took that experience and moved to an organization that represented California's Catholic health systems and hospitals doing policy shaping and advocacy. He also worked for about 10 years for Blue Shield of California (in California, a competitor of Blue Cross).
Eventually, McCaffery shifted back to government, again in public health and health services for the state government. Realizing he had a passion for public policy, he began looking for opportunities to return to that area -- something with a bigger sense of mission. At that, he returned to work for the Military Health System.
McCaffery listed some of the elements of leadership he feels leads to success. The first element is persistence. Goals are rarely achieved rapidly and everyday wins are rare. As long as you are working toward some final goal, doggedness and persistence will carry you past setbacks, toward steady progress, and help achieve success.
Another trait is loyalty. Loyalty is a two-way street, he said. Leaders need to know something about their subordinates, not in a prying or overly personal way, but to understand their goals and aspirations. Leaders should be advocates for their staff.
McCaffery recalled a supervisor at Blue Shield who sent him home for a week during a stressful period of long days and weeks preparing a bid for the California Public Employees Retirement System. She told him, "You have to take care of the whole person." Loyalty is not all about leaders thinking about what is my staff doing for me, he said. Reverse loyalty "pays dividends," he said.
McCaffery also said don't try to be the expert on everything. Don't try to be "the smartest guy in the room," said McCaffery. "If you're trying to be the expert in the room, you're not spending your time wisely," he said. You need to be thinking longer term and about making decisions. In addition, leaders who act as if they are the smartest person in the room are suggesting to the team, who may be very knowledgeable in their expertise and actual subject matter experts, that their expertise is not valued and they are not "equal parts" of the team. Rely on your subject matter experts, he said.
Humor is important, he said. Laugh at yourself or the situation. It makes you seem more available, it can defuse a tense situation, and it can help to put things in perspective.
Be careful with making judgments about people, McCaffery said. There are times, however, you may have to make a decision that a staff member just does not fit or isn't right for his or her role, affecting the team's performance. Make the right decision for the team, he said.
Before McCaffery took questions from the audience, he said, "every so often do something that makes you uncomfortable." People tend to do what they are comfortable with and good at. If you do something out of your comfort zone, it will help a leader "grow and develop," he said.
The Surgeon General's lecture series features a speaker every two months and aims to share leadership skills and experience, helping the team grow and, in turn, be more effective leaders and team members.