Exponential Leadership

#207 Under Pressure - Neurosurgeons and Leadership - Mark Mclaughlin

April 06, 2022 Eksteen de Waal Season 2
Exponential Leadership
#207 Under Pressure - Neurosurgeons and Leadership - Mark Mclaughlin
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Today I am talking to Mark McLaughlin. Mark's a neurosurgeon, and at the same time, also a youth wrestling coach. Can imagine that? How do you explain what you do to the youth? And at the same time, inspire them to be their best selves, Give them self-confidence. And how do you learn from that again? And bring that back into a neuro-psychological surgical team in hospital, we've got to lead brain surgery in essence. I mean, we'll even use that as reference, “It's not as bad as brain surgery”. Now, Mark does that on a daily basis. So what can we learn from mark? And from the way that he leads and the way that he coaches and the way that he talks to west point about what leadership is.

He wrote a book about cognitive dominance. That sounds really dominating, or as he calls it almost like Darth Vader, but in this case, it is about how we act in a crisis. I think no more relevant than it is today. So I hope just like me, you look forward to this talk today with Mark McLaughlin.

When I reflect on what I just talked to mark about, one of the things that he said in one of his talks that actually came to mind. Casual and casualty. If we treat leadership casually, we don't use this as a learning process to become a little bit better every single day, then our people are the casualties and in a world dominated by violence at the moment and by war, why should we still accept leadership that causes casualties. Can we take ownership duty? Take that little bit of care with people's lives to make sure that we can actually make a difference, make it better and leave no casualties behind. Let's all not treat our people casually, our leadership casually and let's learn, grow and become the best leaders.

A passion for medicine and wrestling 

 Dr. Mark McLaughlin is a practising board-certified neurosurgeon, and the co-author of Cognitive Dominance: A Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear. He is also the founder of Princeton Brain and Spine care, which focuses on cervical spine surgery and trigeminal neuralgia surgery and a co-founder and funds the non-profit organisation Trenton Youth Wrestling.   

 Wrestling and medicine have both been major parts of Mark's life. His inspiration for pursuing medicine was not only coming from a family filled with doctors but specifically his grandfather whom he accompanied on patient visits. At the same time, Mark also found both joy and a sense of belonging in sports, especially wrestling. 

 While studying, Mark joined the University wrestling team. It was here he says he found a great mentor and leader, his coach, Mal Platt who became a leading figure in Mark’s life. Mark took many lessons, a big one being respect for others, from his coach who guided him to find a balance between his studies and his commitment to being part of Wrestle Division one. 

 He believes that his passion for both wrestling, and neurosurgery has helped him become who he is today and positively impacted his approach to leadership.  

 Despite what seems like a divide between his two passions, they are intertwined, and the love of both remains a part of his life today. Mark expressed that just “yesterday, I had to call a patient who wasn't having the normal expected recovery from his surgery, and I had to calm and reassure him.” Mark also sees this need for reassurance and explanation in helping injured wrestlers during their recovery. 

Cohesion in the theatre 

Respect and empathy  

Mark explains that being a neurosurgeon is being both a team player and a leader in the operating theatre. Each person has their own part to play, and they need to be able to perform to the best of their abilities. Mark explains that you “have a whole bunch of other people that need to do really well and if I'm leading in a way that's most effective then I'm bringing the best out in them as well....... And I think that must be done with mutual respect.”  


Why is mutual respect important for leadership? Leadership with respect has an impact that spreads across the whole team dynamic. When we are respectful and empathetic toward our colleagues, that respect and empathy will be carried through the team. Dr. Mclaughlin believes that a leader needs to be respectful, and that respect starts from simple things such as knowing the names of your colleagues AND using them. Respect is where a cohesive team starts. 

 Giving people a voice 

People need to feel safe to speak up. Mark explains that a few years ago in the medical field there was a culture of reluctance when asking a physician a question. Mark explains that this is due to, what was referred to as, “a gradient of authority.” Authority Gradient refers to the established, and/or perceived command and decision-making power hierarchy in a team, crew, or group situation. This authority in the medical field had caused some complications in the past whereby people were not comfortable enough to communicate, in an environment where communication can save a life. This has since been recognised and now hospitals are promoting that staff take time to pause and reflect before anything is done. This time is used to determine who the surgeon is, what the surgery is, and where the surgery is taking place on the person.  

 When Mark is conducting a surgery, he encourages his colleagues to speak to him during the procedure, especially if they believe that something seems out of place. Mark explains that “Whenever human beings are involved, mistakes can happen, so opening the space for these kinds of “.. feedback.. “ conversations are very important.”  

 Having open and honest feedback conversations in any setting can be beneficial to any team. It is equally important that leaders also acknowledge what their team is saying. When a team member is stating a concern or providing feedback, some leaders may go on the defensive or even refuse what is being said. Regardless of whether you believe who is right or wrong, there will always be a grain of truth in what is being said.  

 Never be afraid to ask for help  

One of the lessons that Mark had learnt early on in both his medical career and wrestling years, is to never be afraid to ask for help. Often leaders find that they cannot, or should not, share their concerns with anyone and they end up suffering alone, this is often because they want to appear perfectly capable to the rest of the team.  

 Sharing your concerns with another person can provide a new perspective on a situation that can help you stress less. By sharing, this way, you won’t be carrying all the anxiety alone as another person will understand your concerns and can try to help you through them. Instead of being seen as perfect, you are now seen as humble, authentic and approachable, which Mark says is especially helpful when addressing conflict.  

Internal Conflict  

Wrestling may seem like an ‘aggressive’ sport to many people, but any wrestler will know that you must have a strong, calm and collected focus before and during a bout at a tournament. It is the same in the operating room, and imperative that all surgeons and medical staff enter the room calm and collected. Negative emotions are distracting and will hamper your performance of the task at hand.  

 Part of being human is dealing with anger and conflict. Mark iterates that any unsettled feelings should be resolved before the surgery. This is critical, especially during surgery where there can be intense pressure and complications, either on the surgeon's side, a potential technical difficulty, or an unexpected reaction from a patient can cause tempers to flare up. When this type of complication happens, Mark finds it best to take a “timeout” and discuss the situation with a colleague to find the best course of action and not force his will on others.  

 In all leadership relationships, you need to have a team that can trust you. Like Mark’s wrestling coach, the principles of empathy, respect and open and very human communication have carried through into his surgeries. Dr. Mclaughlin has used these principles to help resolve internal conflict and create successful teams.      

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