Most Hated to Most Admired: Tips on Transforming as a Leader

William, a cardiac surgeon, while enrolled in an MIT program took a position in a new hospital as a medical director of a department. This meant he would need to split his time between the operating room (OR) and overseeing the activities on the floor. This was something he had been considering for some time. The only thing he did not consider was his leadership style.

It didn’t take long for William to realize something was off. His new team seemed almost eager to shoot down his ideas. Others did everything possible to avoid or block him. He had a constant nagging sense that people were talking about him behind his back.

The situation turned out to be even worse than he thought. A system-wide survey kicked back the following “title” beside his name:

“Most Hated Physician”

William was stunned. When he worked exclusively as a surgeon, he’d received nothing but positive feedback; and if he received anything less than positive, well, it must be the other person’s issue. He wasn’t sure what happened, but he knew he had work to do.

Luckily, in his leadership classes at MIT, William had begun examining his mindset as a leader. He was also exposed to a leadership model called The Three Lenses. William’s journey of accelerated development can give us a useful template to view our own growth process.


In order to move forward, William needed to examine the mindset that had been inculcated in him during medical school. As a surgeon, William was taught that all of the accountability in the OR fell on his shoulders. From this mindset, he became accustomed to running the show from a position of power and authority: “This is my operating room, my anesthesiologist, my instruments, my nurse – my way or the highway!”

In the OR, that “my way or the highway” attitude enabled William to do his job and provide successful patient outcomes. All processes and procedures in the OR aligned accordingly. In fact, William’s very identity had become tied to being “the guy who had all the answers.” He was the one everyone else waited for – to make a decision, to choose the path, and even to order lunch.

His new role of overseeing the department required collaboration skills to achieve the best results. Many of the very smart people who also worked on the floor might know more and have better solutions to the myriad problems they faced every day. Blazing in with “my way or the highway” only alienated people and stymied his efforts.

Also Read: 10 Proactive Ways to Build Engagement from Your Team

William needed to get the pulse of his people to understand how decisions were made and how things got done. He needed to listen for the underlying narratives, attitudes, and beliefs and get in sync. He needed to realize that the best solutions resided in the experiences and stories of those frontline veterans.

He had to ask himself the tough but necessary questions: What’s my role as a leader? How am I showing up? How am I relating to others? How can I help them do their jobs better?

Though challenging, the answers to these questions made William realize he had to conduct himself differently. He started by stepping back. He observed. In some cases, he made apologies to people he’d treated poorly. He began walking the floor in earnest. He started having real conversations with fellow staff members – conversations that invited idea exchanges. Slowly he earned the trust of his team.

William continued to work on making three important shifts:

  • A shift in mindset. From intellectual superiority to intellectual humility, and from having all the answers to drawing out the collective intelligence of his team.
  • A shift in role and identity. From the political lens of commander and authoritarian to the cultural lens of a coach, facilitator, and meaning maker.
  • A shift in actions and behavior. William began to delegate and empower. He created stretch assignments to engage his team. He began to facilitate, inquire, and involve others. And he started to invest in developmental conversations with his team members.

Six months later, William earned a new “title” from the system-wide survey:

“Most Admired Physician”

William had turned the feedback around. His team members and colleagues recognized and appreciated the genuine efforts he made, and this was reflected in their feedback.

Strategic Lens

Resist making a huge entrance as you arrive in your new position. Take the time to learn all you can about your new role and responsibilities. Invite your team into a conversation about which processes work well and which do not. Leverage the knowledge and experience of your new team to generate ideas and develop a plan together. Try answering the following questions:

  • How does the work of your group support the goals of the organization?
  • How do the current strategies, processes, and procedures integrate with other work groups?
  • What improvements would help to enhance the operational experience?

Political Lens

Start by observing the political power structures within your department and larger organization. Sit quietly in meetings; be alert and observe the flow of the dialogue. Watch for body language, vocal tones, and other communication clues. Answering the following questions can help you grasp the political dynamic:

  • Who holds the knowledge in the organization?
  • Who holds onto the positional power?
  • How are decisions really made?

Cultural Lens

Adopt the mindset of an anthropologist and seek out the motives and values of the organization. Answering the following questions can help you grasp the cultural dynamic:

  • What stories can you unearth about your team and the larger organization?
  • Does the organization have a sense of humor? (If so, what kind? E.g., self-deprecating, warm, sarcastic, etc.)
  • Is it a safe place for people to express their ideas?

At this point, you can begin to think about the personal adjustments you might need to make to be successful. What mindset will you need to adopt? What is the most important role you can play to help your new team or organization achieve its strategic goals? What do you need to stop doing? No matter the answers to these questions, remember that your presence has a huge impact on the people around you and your environment. A smile, a pause, and a positive observation can go a long way in paving your path to success.

About the Writer: MIT’s Executive Coach Rob Salafia

Rob Salafia is an authority on executive presence and transformative learning experiences. He is the author of Leading from Your Best Self: Develop Executive Poise, Presence, and Influence to Maximize Your Potential (McGraw-Hill) on which this article is based. Rob is an MIT Leadership Center Master Executive Coach, a Lecturer within Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School of Management, as well as the Founder of Protagonist Consulting Group.

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