Leadership Lessons from ‘The Good Doctor’

I just recently hopped aboard the ‘Good Doctor’ bandwagon and, boy, am I hooked. It’s such a good show! The premise puts an interesting spin on the television medical melodrama formula. It focuses on a very gifted young doctor named Shaun Murphy, who happens to be autistic. He and several other new residents work at the fictional San Jose St. Bonaventure hospital, where they tend to emergency patients, assist with surgeries, and make plenty of mistakes along the way. The hospital President, Dr. Glassman, acts as a mentor for all of the residents and exemplifies what calm, nurturing leadership should look like.

Last night’s episode saw the hospital staff pushed to their limits when a bus crash flooded the ER with dozens of casualties. One patient asks resident Dr. Claire Browne if her wife survived the accident. Upon seeing that she’s not listed on the intake roster and is nowhere to be found in the waiting area, Dr. Browne surmises the woman’s wife is still at the crash site. She locates her in the woods several yards from the bus and determines she has a dangerous brain hemorrhage. After having a breathing tube inserted and the fluid drained from her brain, the patient is transported to St. Bonaventure where an EEG shows zero neural activity: she is deemed brain-dead.

Dr. Glassman catches up with Dr. Browne before she can tell the patient’s wife the devastating news. He asks her whether she checked the patient’s respiration after intubating her. She stumbles trying to remember, explaining her focus was on aspirating the hematoma. Glassman then informs her that she inserted the breathing tube too deep into the patient’s damaged lung causing a lack of oxygen to the brain while she was en route to the hospital. The hematoma did not cause the woman’s brain death; it was Dr. Browne’s mistake that did.

Glassman quietly and compassionately tells Browne what she did and how it affected the patient. But instead of going on to berate her for making an honest mistake, he recounts a story from his own residency in an ER many years before. A patient presented with a bad cough, so he prescribed her antibiotics and sent her on her way. Paramedics brought her back to the emergency room hours later in full cardiac arrest. She was having a heart attack the whole time and he had missed it. She unfortunately died because of his mistake.

This was a perfect example of a leader helping one of his employees learn from a serious mistake while reminding her that we are all human. He didn’t harshly criticize her or go so far as to threaten her employment. This was a teachable experience for her, albeit one with much higher stakes than most any other profession. She understood what she did and the dire consequence it had for her patient. Still, her boss’ intent was to teach her in that moment so she can be a better physician for future patients, not to break her spirit with stern admonition.

The best leaders are not those who bark orders, dole out punishments, and crack the whip when followers step out of line. Holding a leadership position is an honor and a privilege because it gives one tremendous responsibility for developing employees into their best selves. Effective leadership means growing and guiding those in your charge. Leaders lift up their people, especially when they mess up. They even admit their own errors to show that anyone can learn from mistakes and grow to be successful in their careers. Nobody is perfect — not doctors, and certainly not leaders. But both do help the people in their care to overcome imperfections and go on to lead better lives because of their support. I’m excited to see what other leadership lessons Dr. Glassman can teach his residents (and us, the viewers) in upcoming episodes.

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