Baylor College of Medicine

A Lesson in Leadership


Feb. 10, 2021


Dear Members of the Baylor College of Medicine Community,

It has been a good week. Set aside for a moment significant concerns about emerging viral variants, and everything is trending in the right direction. New cases, hospitalizations and deaths are decreasing, locally and nationally. We are appropriately impatient regarding our pace of vaccine administration, which needs to increase, but at this point the U.S. has administered more than 42 million doses, more than any other nation in the world, and fourth on a per capita basis. It is far from over, but we are making progress.

I have spent this past week reflecting on leadership lessons learned during this experience. I had an opportunity to meet last week with participants in Baylor's Master Teachers Fellowship Program (BMTF), a faculty development program designed to enhance teaching knowledge and skills.

I was asked to speak on the topic of leadership during the pandemic. You might think this is a relatively easy topic to cover, but I found it challenging. On the one hand, for many of us just living through this year has been like attending a master's class on leadership. We have had an opportunity to sit in the front row and observe a variety of leadership styles both in our organization and our community. All I needed to do for BMTF was to distill those observations into my lessons learned. However, it is hard to describe something when you are too close to it. As you climb a mountain, you see only the path ahead of you. It is not until you reach the summit that you can take in the entire view, appreciate where you came from, and reflect upon the enormity of it all.

Along with all of you, I am still trudging along day-by-day on the pandemic path. My vision is limited, incomplete, developing.

Still, I made an attempt to distill what I have observed from watching leaders during this crisis from Baylor, across the TMC, and our community. I came up with a not-ready-for-prime-time list of seven lessons learned. I am not ready to share the entire list just yet, as I expect it will be different six months from now, once we are on the summit looking back at our pandemic experience. However, there is one lesson I am confident will endure:

To lead, you must stand in awe of your organization.

I stand in awe of Baylor College of Medicine, and one of the gifts of the pandemic has been the opportunity to see the best of who we are. Baylor has stepped up steadily and consistently – one foot in front of the other – in ways large and small:

  • Testing. Early in the pandemic, when no diagnostic testing was available, leaders from the research mission stepped in. We adapted Baylor research laboratory equipment and raised $1 million from donors for the rapid construction of new laboratory space to provide PCR diagnostic tests to Harris County, the City of Houston, frontline workers at our affiliated hospitals and our patients. We continue to provide large-scale, rapid turnaround, high reliability community testing. To complement our testing capability, our specimen collection center is efficient and consumer friendly.
  • Clinical trials. Baylor has been an important generator of new knowledge during the pandemic. We were a major site nationally for 25 interventional trials to date, including the testing of convalescent sera and Remdisivir. We are now recruiting volunteers for the Novavax vaccine clinical trial. A Baylor vaccine is undergoing phase 1 and 2 trials in India. During the pandemic, we have submitted more than 150 research proposals to the National Institutes of Health and other organizations, with topics ranging from basic science to overcoming vaccine hesitancy issues in ethnic and minority populations. Already, Baylor scientists and physicians have published their work on COVID in more than 300 publications, including the high-profile work in the New England Journal of Medicine showing efficacy of the Moderna vaccine.
  • Vaccine hesitancy. While others fret about reluctance of some to receive the vaccine, particularly in populations known to be at risk, Baylor is doing something about it. The College is collaborating with local institutions such as Texas Southern University to educate minority populations to build trust and improve understanding of the benefits of vaccination. Baylor also has eight active Covid19 related treatment trials ongoing.
  • Wastewater surveillance. Baylor technology designed to develop precision treatments for resistant bacteria was adopted to measure SARS-CoV-2 viral products in city wastewater. The quantification of viral product in wastewater proved to be an effective predictor of viral hot spot development. In collaboration with the City of Houston and Rice University, we now monitor 38 wastewater stations in the city, which has provided public health officials with valuable time to intervene in at-risk neighborhoods before the actual rise in disease.
  • Healthcare workforce. Baylor clinical faculty physicians – with our nurses, MAs, residents, fellows, and medical and health profession students – are the front-line workforce for many of Houston's most important hospitals: Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, Texas Children's Hospital, Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Ben Taub Hospital and others. From the perspective of the general public, the pandemic has waxed and waned over the past year. Not so for our physicians and healthcare workers. Baylor has played a critical role in keeping our major institutions staffed. This effort would not have been possible without the active engagement of a broad swath of leaders across the organization.
  • Vaccine clinic. When the Pfizer vaccine was approved in December, Baylor immediately planned and built a vaccine administration clinic in anticipation of helping Houston to get people vaccinated as rapidly, safely, and conveniently as possible. The clinical operation is efficient and consumer-friendly – no lines, no waiting. From the very beginning, we have also scrupulously adhered to the state's mandated eligibility criteria. The vaccines are in short supply, shipments are difficult to accurately predict and require a high degree of technical expertise to store and administer. In spite of this complexity, our operational, clinical and quality leaders have managed to create an excellent patient experience.

I stand in awe of our organization. Why is this an important leadership lesson? To stand in awe puts you in a valuable place. It is a place where you actively seek to know your team and appreciate their unique skills, talents, and accomplishments. It is a place of humility, where it is blindingly obvious we accomplish far more together than separately. It is a place that evokes a feeling of thankfulness. Knowledge, humility, gratitude. As I reflect on my personal experience, finding this place is not optional, it is a necessity. I do not think it is possible to effectively lead if you do not stand in awe of your organization.

You have all had opportunities to lead during the pandemic – in your department, division, school, community, social network, family. You have seen examples of effective leadership, large and small. We are all on the same journey. The path immediately in front of us is clear, but we cannot yet rest on the summit and enjoy the view.

The lessons we have learned during this difficult time will stay with us for years to come. Stop and reflect. What is the most important leadership lesson you will carry into the future?

Stay well.

James T. McDeavitt, M.D.
Senior Vice President and Dean of Clinical Affairs

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