As a little boy I had a dream that I have always wanted to join the circus. I thought for sure I could be a clown or even the ringmaster. At age 34 a friend who did public relations for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave me the opportunity to make my dream come true and I was invited to be a clown in the circus.
The show was to go on at 8pm and I had to arrive at 4pm to receive my makeup and learn my skit as a clown. It was a real thrill to be out in front of 5000 spectators doing my routine. It lasted about 15 minutes and true as Andy Warhol said, “Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame” and that was mine.
After the show I went back stage to change clothes with the other clowns in a railroad car that functioned as their dormitory. What I saw walking back to that rail car has left an indelible impression upon me about leadership and setting an example. The most famous circus performer at that time was the lion and elephant tamer, Gunther Gebel-Williams. He was able to control a herd of 20 elephants with almost a whisper and lions and tigers by merely talking to them.
After the show I walked by the elephant tent where the herd was tethered by small chains around their legs. And who was cleaning up the tent and shoveling the elephant poop? It was Gunther Gebel-Williams! Here was a man who had the highest salary of all the performers, who had his own travel bus with all of the amenities of any rock and roll performer, and there he was doing the work of the entry level workers. He clearly demonstrated by example that there was no task, large or small, that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. So what lessons does that provide for us in healthcare?
The leaders, which include doctors and office managers, need to set the example. When we show our staff and our patients that we aren’t above the smallest task, we demonstrate that we are a part of the team. If you walk down the hall and see that the restroom needs to have the wastebasket emptied and you do it, you can be sure that the example you set will motivate the staff to clean it the next time. If you see that the paper on the exam table needs to be removed from the previous patient and you remove the old paper and put it in the wastebasket, you can be sure your staff will be impressed with this tiny gesture on your part. If the staff is working hard and there’s no one to go to the reception area, call for the next patient, and accompany him to the exam room, you do it and you will endear yourself to your staff.
Few of us will get to be clowns or lion tamers but all of us can be like the great Gunther Gebel-Williams and do the most menial task. This is leadership by example and more of us, myself included, need to pitch in and pick up the poop.
Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MD, or on Facebook and Twitter.