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When Stuff Happens to Physicians

Taking Advantage of Moments When Opportunity Knocks

In his book, Consilience Leadership, Gary Cook, discusses what an inflection point is, what happens when it occurs, and why it’s important to take advantage of it.  The leadership lessons should resonate with us, as physicians in transition—and can be applied in leading our organizations as well as managing our careers.     

As James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out in The Leadership Challenge: “Stuff happens in organizations and in our lives.  Sometimes we choose it; sometimes it chooses us.  It is unavoidable.  What is important are the choices you make when stuff happens.  The question is: When opportunity knocks, are you prepared to open the door.”

Perhaps you’ve been disenchanted with your practice for some time but just haven’t taken any steps to explore other options.  Perhaps you’ve experienced an event in your personal life but are using it as an excuse to avoid making any decisions.  You feel trapped.  Your work life is miserable—but you would rather remain unhappy with what you have than risk a new direction. 

What happens at an inflection point?

An inflection point is an event that changes the way we think and act.  Our patients may experience an inflection point as a result of a cardiac event or near-death experience.  Organizations experience an inflection point when something happens—such as a safety incident, the loss of a market, or a regulatory investigation—that forces a change in behavior.  In both cases, there is a powerful opportunity to create behavioral change, what some might call a “teachable moment.” 

For cardiac patients, the change could be in their diet and exercise routines.  But for individuals in organizations, it could be their interpersonal behaviors, where significant improvement could mean the difference between advancement and being stuck.  It could be a negative event such as a threat of termination or a performance review about not meeting expectations.  The teachable moment can also come out of an experience that “kicks you in the pants” to make you move out of your comfort zone. 

This crucial moment can be the result of an event in your personal life, such as a divorce or death in the family.  Or it can be the result of something in your clinical practice or business that impacts your work, such as downsizing, a merger or acquisition, or a competitive threat. 

Whatever the situation, it cannot be ignored.  It demands our attention. 

The inflection point may prompt questions to guide our self-evaluation.  What’s most important to me now?  Should my goals be different?  Why am I still in the same job or career?  What am I waiting for?

We find we are thinking about an important aspect of our life in a different way—and perhaps, we can change more than we thought.  And we may also find the energy to make it happen.  As Cook notes, “When this process is actuated, a magical moment occurs when we tend to suspend the usual rules about how we manage our lives, and thus we are open to new ways of viewing ourselves and others, and to new standards of behavior.”  Simply put, these moments can create the conditions for introspection and desire for change that might not otherwise occur in our lifetime.

Taking advantage of inflection points

As we all know, it’s not easy to change our behavior.  We set goals for ourselves and then find it’s all too easy to fall back into old habits and behaviors.  We tend to stay with the known and familiar—even if it’s miserable.  Typically, we need a push to get us our fear of the unknown and the uncertain.  Inflection points can create the conditions for that push.

Cook points out that “great moments in history occur when inflection points create a powerful response.”  He cites Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by 1970 in response to the successful launch of Sputnik and the Marshall Plan, created as a response to the devastation at the end of World War II as prime examples.

Similarly, great moments occur for individuals under such circumstances.  Unfortunately, there are several reasons why it is often difficult for individuals to take full advantage of these points in time. 

  • We may not realize we’re at an inflection point—and try to deal with the situation using our normal behavior patterns. 
  • We may not recognize the power that an inflection point has to help us change the way we do things.
  • We may not be skilled in looking at all of the options available in response to the situation.
  • We may not be good at laying out the probable risks and results of new courses of action.

If we are not sure we can arm ourselves with the best answers, it is probably time to consult a professional coach who can help us take advantage of the opportunity created by the inflection point. An experienced coach can help us see the opportunity, sort the options, and unleash the energy of these moments.  A coach can also help us manage the doldrums and restructure the current chapter of our life and begin a transition toward a new chapter (not just going from something—but going to). 

Remember, inflection points happen infrequently, and those who succeed in life tend to pay attention to these points and maximize the benefit of their response to them. 

Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for sharing this insightful information. This reminds me of Seth Godin's book: "The Dip". In business and in medical practice we do run into scenarios that seem like make or break moments. Many times, though, we are are in the flurry of the moment that we don't approach these inflection points with the best perspective. The busy-ness and pressures we place on ourselves make it difficult to take a step back, pause and reflect. But when we are able to have this type of perspective, doors open and opportunities abound that we never thought we there in the first place. While we can't predict when the next inflection point will occur, we can practice leading our lives in a way so that when they do occur, we have the best chance of seeing the big picture.

Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your input and insight--and agree with your suggestions on how physicians could approach inflection points in their lives.

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