Former UCLA medical school dean outlines valuable leadership lessons in new book
August 22, 2011
5 min read
Just months after Dr. Gerald S. Levey began interviewing for the position as head of one of the world's premier academic health centers, Mother Nature rewrote the job description. The 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged UCLA Medical Center beyond repair, and it soon became clear that a significant portion of Levey's mandate would be to oversee the building of a new hospital.
"In one fell swoop, the job I thought I was going to have completely changed," he said.
Levey stepped down nearly 16 years later, having amassed an extraordinary record of accomplishments, including unprecedented fundraising, elite rankings for UCLA's medical school and hospital, and the building of five new state-of-the-art facilities — including Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, which was 14 years in the making and which Levey calls "the most challenging thing I have ever done."
Now, the former vice chancellor for medical sciences and dean emeritus of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA shares lessons drawn from his successful leadership experience in "Never Be Afraid To Do the Right Thing: A Leadership Guide in an Age of Change and Challenge," published this month by Second River Healthcare Press.
Levey, a trained internist and endocrinologist who prior to coming to UCLA had served as a senior vice president at Merck & Co., wrote the book as a business memoir intended to provide insights for leaders of all types of organizations.
"The traits I identify are as relevant to business or government as they are to medicine," he said. "Rather than going into details about issues like cost containment, patient satisfaction and quality of care, I wanted to share how a successful leader makes decisions and the role of the leadership team in achieving the institution's goals."
The book takes its title from Levey's favorite piece of business advice. He frequently told members of his leadership team that it was less important whether a decision turned out to be correct than whether it was "the moral, ethical and honest thing to do."
In the book, Levey argues that one of the most important traits of a strong leader is the ability to adapt to circumstances. It is a lesson he hopes to impress upon UCLA medical students, who will likely see a variety of significant health care changes in the years to come; about 190 of them received free copies of the book from Levey at their white coat ceremony earlier this month.
"No one knows what the health care system will look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now," he said. "But the leaders of that system are going to have to know how to adapt. If, for example, Medicare or Medicaid were drastically changed, they would have to figure out how to function at a high level in such a system."
The importance of being adaptable became abundantly clear to Levey following the 1994 earthquake, when raising money to build a new hospital moved to the top of the priority list. Levey had come to UCLA with fundraising experience. As chair of the department of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh during the height of a recession in 1979, he was introduced by an important member of the community to the CEO of U.S. Steel, among others, and was able to obtain substantial donations to start new programs.
Recalling those successes when he arrived at UCLA, he put forward what he called "Levey's Eight Principles of Fundraising," the first of which was the value of getting respected people in the community to make introductions to people of influence and affluence. At UCLA, one such person turned out to be an entertainment industry leader who introduced Levey to many individuals who became major donors. Knowing the importance of being responsive, Levey carried a pager with him no matter where he was, inviting supporters to contact him at any time.
His fundraising abilities became legendary. Levey estimates that he was personally involved in raising between $700 and $800 million, including a $200 million gift from David Geffen in 2002 that endowed the medical school. In an era of dwindling state support, the gift went a long way toward providing more scholarships, improving faculty recruitment and retention, and securing the medical school's position as a leader in biomedical research.
Beyond pointing to the characteristics needed for successful leadership, one of Levey's goals in writing the book was to help readers better recognize leadership potential.
"There is a long history of important jobs in medicine, industry and government where people placed in positions of leadership did not succeed because, quite frankly, they weren't designed to be leaders," he said.
The keys to effective leadership Levey outlines in the book include a strong work ethic and passion for the job, high moral and ethical principles, humility, and accepting responsibility. He also stresses the importance of a sense of humor and treating others with respect.
"Leadership ultimately is about caring for people in your organization," he said. "In my final days on the job, what really hit home was that people felt connected with me because they felt they were part of something, and that I cared."