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Caring, Character & Calling: Reflecting on a Lasting Mentorship

April 29, 2022

Did you ever have a teacher who changed your course of your life? Someone whose habits, actions, insights and integrity made you want to follow in their footsteps? Members of Dell Medical School share personal stories of profound influencers in this blog series.

All members of the Dell Med community are welcome to submit stories of teachers or mentors whose character moved them and made a difference in their development. This story is shared by John Luk, assistant dean for interprofessional integration at Dell Med.

I am where I am in my career due to the generosity of giants in medical education. As I recall the many amazing people who have shaped my service as a medical education leader, I inevitably return to my first leadership mentor, whose actions, attitudes and approaches strongly influenced my own leadership philosophy. Though he may not have realized it at the time, he opened the door to an incredibly fulfilling and purposeful career that has seen me through the metamorphosis of the Austin’s medical education landscape.

In 2003, I assumed the role of a pediatrics clerkship director at a regional site in Austin. Though I lacked formal preparation as an education leader, I was bursting with energy and ideas, ready to make the clerkship experience one of the best in Austin. In that early leadership role, I met Michael Ainsworth, former associate dean for regional medical education at the University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine in Galveston. I was impressed by his no-nonsense, thoughtful and respectful approach to collaboration. I watched how he built partnerships without pretense, and I knew that I would model my leadership style after his. In 2006, he invited me to join him in leading Austin’s regional clinical campus. He had entrusted me to help him grow the campus and to nurture partnerships there, and since then, I have not looked back and wondered about what opportunities could have been.

Developing an Educational Philosophy

Ainsworth’s mentorship lasted over a decade. When I had the opportunity to craft my own educational leadership philosophy, I naturally found inspiration from him alongside new educational leaders whom I’ve met along the way. Ainsworth and the mentors who followed him have been north stars in my educational leadership career, and they serve as reminders of the value of wisdom and partnership. For those in medical education, I share my philosophy below, and I invite you to reflect on your own character journey and those who have made it possible.

My Approach to Educational Leadership

As a leader, I believe that I must lead as well as follow. I understand that leadership is a privilege whose exercise must include feedback and dialogue with stakeholders and an appreciation of the circumstances in which one leads. I liken my vision of leadership to a ship’s captain whose success depends on the favors of the tides and winds, the strength and integrity of the vessel, and the allegiance and confidence of its crew and passengers. The captain charts a course and navigates the ship to its destination while continually surveying conditions.

The elaboration of a vision and guiding principles as an educational leader forms the destination and manifest of the travel. Recognition that many factors remain beyond one’s control allows the focus of leadership energy into areas where one has influence. More importantly, an educational leader with such insight may have the foresight to steer toward more favorable opportunities while preparing for and, possibly minimizing, the impact of less favorable circumstances. Success in this role also requires institutional support to provide a stable operational platform, faculty backing to promote and maintain a curriculum, and students’ commitment to be learners. Accountability to the vision and its guiding principles and stakeholders remains integral to a leader’s longevity.

Most importantly, I believe that leadership involves mentorship and the ability to inspire peers to higher aspirations and leadership. Energy invested as a leader will yield enduring outcomes that others may take in further directions and distances.

The Kern National Network for Caring and Character in Medicine is a national network of seven medical schools dedicated to advance caring and character in medicine with the goal of promoting human flourishing. Guided by the principles of caring and character, the KNN provides a framework for training physicians, strengthening joy in medicine and improving health to promote human flourishing within, across and beyond the medical profession to positively impact individuals and communities in our society.

This initiative was made possible through support from the Kern National Network for Caring and Character in Medicine through an investment from the Kern Family Trust and Kern Family Foundation.