Most of the time when people think about ageism, they think about its impact on older individuals, says Seger Morris, DO, MBA, who recently gave a talk on the best ways early-career physicians can overcome ageism and pursue professional development.
Prejudice or discrimination against a particular age group can hamper the development of younger people as well as older people, noted Dr. Morris, whose talk was part of DO Day 2021’s virtual lineup of presentations on leadership and advocacy.
As an early-career physician himself—he is fewer than five years past residency—Dr. Morris said he previously felt he was too young to make an impact, an attitude he refers to as the “victim mentality of ageism.”
Dr. Morris now holds many leadership positions within the profession, including program director for the internal medicine residency at Baptist Memorial Hospital–North Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, and regional assistant dean and director of health policy programs for William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine. He says his story is a testament to forging one’s own path to leadership as a physician.
Mentorship during training
Medical school was difficult for Dr. Morris academically and once he graduated, he said he felt “jaded and burned out.” Part of that, he said, came from his perception of how students and young physicians were viewed, and his own perception of his abilities.
But when he got to residency, several DO mentors helped change his perspective. David Pizzimenti, DO, his program director, was early in his career at the time, and a mentor to many already, including Dr. Morris.
Another early-career physician, W. Ashley Hood, DO, gave Dr. Morris an opportunity to serve on the Mississippi Osteopathic Association’s (MOMA) Board of Directors as a resident representative. During Dr. Morris’ time on the board, yet another early-career physician, DeGail Hadley, DO, was elected president of MOMA.
Considering the impacts these physicians were making so early in their careers, Dr. Morris said to himself, “if these people can do this, then I can, too.”
Additionally, as an AOA Training in Policy Studies health policy fellow, Dr. Morris was connected with Barbara Ross-Lee, DO, who encouraged him to look at things from a “higher ground,” to ensure he was always seeing the big picture.
Taking all of these lessons learned to heart, Dr. Morris set out to focus on controlling his own outcomes, and adopted this quote by Trond Arne Undheim of Oracle Corporation as his motto: “Leadership is an attitude, not a position.”
What should physician leadership look like?
Dr. Morris cited an article he wrote for the Physician Leadership Journal in 2019, which primarily covered the topic of compensation, but also discussed the value physicians bring to the health space beyond patient care.
“Leadership is where our role is in adding value, be it leading care teams, organizations, professional associations, health-related businesses, or in public policy,” he said.
He encouraged physicians to consider the positive effect they can have on gradually expanding spheres of influence, such as their immediate family, their community, their workplace and beyond.
“Ask yourself how you can expand your influence at each level,” he said. “And remember that in order to make that impact as you move to higher levels, you have to let go of authority. You can still be an example to others, but your authority will diminish the further you move outside of yourself and your immediate circle.”
For physicians, seeking higher levels of influence should be more important than attaining positions of leadership or going after a certain title, he said. Viewing leadership this way can help maximize the impact a physician can make.
Blueprint for success
Dr. Morris is adamant about the importance of having a plan, and cites a quote from motivational speaker Jim Rohn:
“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”
Dr. Morris said that this quote speaks to the importance of paving your own path and engaging with others who support you along the way in mutually beneficial relationships.
Keeping that in mind, his seven steps to overcoming ageism in leadership are:
- Start with why
- Make sure people understand your sense of purpose or cause by understanding it yourself.
- Identify problems/polarities
- If you’re looking for leadership opportunities, think about problems within your organization that you’d like to find solutions for and what your role would be in solving them.
- Set goals
- Once you identify where you want to make an impact, use strategic planning to determine how you’ll measure success in the short and long terms.
- Take action
- Jump into your plan, keeping in mind that you can be going down multiple paths at once.
- Review goals/results
- Take stock of your progress, and give yourself an honest assessment on a regular basis to stay on track.
- Personal development
- Be introspective. Look at the big picture and ask yourself how you can improve, contribute more, or have a greater influence.
- Scale, adjust, or abandon
- Reflect on what’s next. Decide whether it’s time to apply the solution to a broader audience, make changes to improve the outcome, or abandon the initiative if it is leading to burnout or unintended negative consequences.