Some Lessons from the 'Museum Doctor'

The head of the Smithsonian Institution also happens to be a physician. He recently offered leadership insights to the graduating class of Fordham University.

“People think history is mostly facts. Actually, history reduces itself to individuals and memories and emotions and ideas.”

—Ken Burns

I got to spend a good block of time with my daughter Lauren this past holiday weekend. I am much the better for it. She fills my heart with hope.

Lauren just completed her sophomore year at Fordham University in the Bronx and I’m liking the results of the Jesuit education. The New York City-based college is something of a “family school” of ours. So far I have been able to officially account for at least 15 family relatives who have done a tour of educational duty at Fordham. Both of Lauren’s grandfathers are Fordham men—one was a lawyer, one was a doctor.

The Fordham Class of ‘16 got a neat doctor twist with their 2016 commencement address this past month, when they heard from “the head of the world’s largest museum,” who also happens to be a physician. He being David J. Skorton, MD, the leader of the fabulous Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

The Milwaukee native has quite the resume—cardiologist (a pioneer in applying computer analysis and processing techniques to cardiac imaging), former Ivy League college president of (Cornell University for which he raised over $5 billion), and accomplished musician (he once played flute with Billy Joel).

In calling my daughter’s upper classmates “among the best-educated and informed generation ever,” Dr. Skorton implored graduates to act as “a tool for the common good at a time when citizens have doubts about America’s greatest institutions, and national conversations are marked by vitriol, suspicion, and fear.” That’s a good beginning.

Here are some other things Dr. Skorton believes:

• From his life in medicine: Dr. Skorton has “learned that the first thing a physician has to do is to be quiet and listen. Be an observer. Try to make sense of what you see.”

• Of the major leadership positions he has held: “never be too proud.” Find out what the leaders before you wrote and thought through their writings and try to see the current world through some of the challenges that they were perceiving. It’s amazing how often similar themes come up again and again.”

• The nation’s scientific community “must learn to communicate more effectively by engaging in conversations with the public. Scientists must step off the ‘surer, safer path’ of publishing only in scientific journals and speaking only at specialty gatherings. Just ‘skip the jargon’ and tell stories in language that the public can understand.”

• After working in many scientific organizations and cultural venues, he’s learned that “every one of us has political points of view one way or the other. But when you go from the individual to the organization, the sweet spot of leadership is to make sure that things that are done represent the best of the available field of knowledge, whatever it happens to be, whether it’s our history or astrophysics.”

• As to innovation, Dr. Skorton says it “comes from the ideas of individual people, and in general, it does not come top down. It comes bottom-up. Those interested in innovating must support and allow people to try out new ideas and take risks. The person best qualified to decide what new idea might make sense is someone who is an expert in the content of whatever problem is being considered.”

• When it comes to intellectual rigor, he believes that the “beauty of the self-correcting nature of scholarship is that as new thoughts or observations or concepts are developed, we must be objective as we can possibly be, understanding that we’re human. We must take those new perspectives and new information and re-think the overall construct of how we put something together—whether it’s diet, climate change, our view of art, or anything else.”

Source: Smithsonian Institution

Image: David J. Skorton, MD, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution