David M. Harlan, MD, has had a distinguished career as a researcher, educator, clinician, and leader in the diabetes field, currently serving as the Diabetes Division Chief and Co-Director of the UMass Diabetes Center of Excellence at UMass Medical School and its clinical affiliate UMass Memorial Medical Center. What helped shape Dr. Harlan as a leader, however, was a distinguished medical career in the U.S. Navy and then subsequently in the U.S. Public Health Service.
In the interview below, Dr. Harlan shares insights on how the military shaped his career and how it can build other medical leaders.
Q: How did you become a leader?
Dr. Harlan: I’m not comfortable calling myself a leader since I think that judgment should be rendered by one’s team and colleagues. Even so, I suppose I had some nascent leadership skills but my military service certainly honed, refined, and matured those abilities. What civilians don’t understand about the military is the importance of a centuries-old system, the chain of command, such that everybody has their role, duties and responsibilities and everybody relies on others carrying out their duties. My experience of civilian culture is that it’s a bit more free-for-all. The military system made me aware of leadership, and I saw great examples of it.
Before I joined, I had this concept of the military that most people get from the movies. In the movies officers are barking orders and it’s an intimidation thing. I thought I’d have to say, “Yes sir! No sir!” and follow orders all the time. In reality I was surprised by the respect and congenial nature of my superior officers. I found that I would do what superiors asked me to do eagerly because I didn’t want to disappoint them. They were counting on me, and I felt privileged to be a part of this organization. I have always tried to lead following their example.
Q: Are there specific skills or strengths you have that directly relate to your experience?
Dr. Harlan: The main thing is that you earn your stripes every single day. You can spend ten years building up something and it can take only a day to destroy it. So you always have to live by the highest standards.
Q: Despite your broad background in research and clinical practice, are you seen as a “military guy” today?
Dr. Harlan: Yes, and that still comes up at times. The environment here at UMass, like many medical centers, is less top-down than the military. I often hear that we are a matrixed organization and this is typical of most medical centers. My experience is that too often one is given responsibility but not the authority and accountability to act efficiently. I’ve always believed that it’s hard to lead unless people know you’re accountable, and that they are for their duties, too. I wouldn’t say one system is better than another. I think many people at UMass would say, “Dave’s leadership style is different than ours.” But I think they would follow that up and say how effective we’ve been in diabetes.
Q: Please complete (and elaborate upon) the following phrase: “Good leadership requires . . . “
Dr. Harlan: Character, integrity, clear communications skills, and genuine mutual respect.
Q: Finally, what advice do you have for service veterans who are transitioning into civilian careers and leadership opportunities?
Dr. Harlan: “Anticipate that things run a little differently. Be patient. Keep your eyes open and listen very carefully to what your colleagues and leaders are saying, and adapt.” And they will.