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#40 Values Driven Leadership with Alliance Leader Dr Lisa Willett

May 22, 2024 | By


Be inspired by Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine Leader, Lisa Willett MD, as we discuss her leadership journey, tips for early career leaders in health professions education, and wisdom to live by as a leader.  Push yourself to speak up confidently without arrogance, focus on your mission, and be humble while supporting your team.

This is part of a special 4 episode series we have this season on leadership in academic medicine supported by AAIM!

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Meet our Guest:

Lisa Willett, MD is a Professor of Medicine at University of Alabama, Birmingham where she works as a hospitalist and serves as Vice Chair for Education and Faculty Development in the Department of Medicine.  She was the past Program Director for 12 years of Tinsley Harrison Internal Medicine program at UAB and has served as past president of APDIM.

Supported in Partnership with Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine

Show Segments

  • 0:00 Intro, get to know our guest
  • 7:30 Dr Willett’s Leadership Journey
  • 10:47: Leading through Disruptive Changes
  • 13:56 Values-based Leadership
  • 17:38 Humility and Excellence without Ego
  • 20:26 Tips for Building your Leadership Skills
  • 22:24 Mentorship and observation
  • 26:22 Formal Leadership Training
  • 28:55 There’s never one way to do something
  • 35:23 Getting through difficulty as a Leader
  • 36:33 More Tips for Early-mid Career Leaders
  • 43:46 Take home points
  • 47:46 Outro

Leadership Pearls

  1. Lead with Humility and Integrity: Aspire to lead with passion, integrity, and humility.  Focus on serving your patients and learners, keeping values at the center to navigate difficult decisions.  Excellence without ego is key; aim for personal excellence while appreciating the contributions of others.
  2. Embrace Diverse Perspectives: Leadership is about the people you lead, not about yourself. Be a good listener, meet people where they are, and understand their challenges. Show empathy and consider the impact of decisions on all stakeholders.  Learn from mentors while developing your own leadership style.
  3. Seize Opportunities and Learn from Failure: Don’t fear failure; it’s part of growth.  Try new and challenging tasks to advance and learn.  Be open to opportunities, and if something interests you, pursue it even if it’s daunting.  Use rejections as opportunities to express interest in future roles and build your network.
  4. Build Relationships and Seek Training: Cultivate peer mentors and get involved in national organizations to expand your network.  Observe and learn from other leaders.  Seek formal training for necessary skills and participate in leadership courses to grow.  Engage in activities that challenge and stretch your abilities for continuous improvement.

Values Driven Leadership Notes 

Dr Willett’s Tips on Leadership:

An aspirational leader needs to be the one to say what’s right, to lead with passion and integrity, and protect the people you have the privilege to protect.  In academic medicine leadership, focus on who we serve- our patients as well as our learners.   Keeping values at the center can make hard decisions an easier process.

Lead with humility.  The idea of excellence without ego came from thinking about what makes trainees succeed in her program at UAB.  Perfection is not the expectation; it’s the desire to bring personal excellence to your daily efforts; be the best you can be, with humility.

There is never one way to do things.  Be a good listener, appreciate all sides, meet people where they are, and understand their challenges and solutions.  Leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you’re leading.

Keep empathy for the people around you- put yourself in other people’s shoes.  You can be confident without arrogance.  Be aware of how decisions impact multiple stakeholders-what is the impact of this decision on faculty, patients, learners, and the broader medical center? 

Learn from great mentors, but when you step into a leadership role yourself, you need to determine your own style.

As a leader, you are part of a team.  Follow through and complete the things that you commit to.

Advice for Early Leaders

Don’t be afraid of failure.  You won’t succeed every time, but just keep trying.  

If something seems interesting, fun, and especially if it seems hard, try it because that’s how you get better and advance.  The next time, it won’t be as scary.   

There is value in not being selected to get a position you apply for, because then people know your name and that you’re interested in future leadership positions.

You can’t say yes to everything, but don’t say no too often.  Especially early on, if you’re not sure about something and it sounds like it might be interesting, try it out for a few years.  Follow through and do a good job, you’ll learn a lot, and build your resume along the way.  You don’t have to stay in it if it doesn’t keep you excited.  

You can’t plan your whole career from the start so be willing to try something different.  Most people in academic medicine don’t get from A to B in a straight line.

When you’re offered an opportunity, you don’t need to give an answer right away. Instead, consider saying, “thank you for the opportunity, let me think about it and talk to my mentor”.  If you decide it’s not right for you, then say, “thank you for the opportunity, the timing’s really not right for me right now, but please consider me for future opportunities. Specifically, I’m really interested in X, Y, and Z”  Sharing what you’re interested in can open up future opportunities to grow in that area.

If there is someone in your institution doing something you’re interested in, go meet with them.  Most people are very generous with their time so be curious and learn from them.  This also lets them know you’re interested in that area for future sponsorship.

Leading through Challenging Times:

When getting through difficult changes/challenges as a leader, lean on your peers and friends.  Have a close cabinet of trusted people to help you get through hard times.

Don’t lose sleep over challenging decisions, it’s going to be ok.  Hang in there, you’re stronger than you think.  Your voice is louder than you think.   Have the confidence to speak up, take one step at a time, and do your best.  You’ll grow from getting through challenges, especially as you reflect on how you can do better next time.

Informal Leadership Training

Dr. Willett highlights that she had many mentors and sponsors who helped her grow, even if they weren’t specifically titled as mentors.  Peer mentors and friends are especially valuable.

Get involved in national organizations, build relationships and networks beyond your institution.

Learn by watching others in leadership.  Observing specific behaviors of others can be really valuable- watch how they manage communications or challenging situations.

Formal Leadership Training

If there are skills that you need in your career, take the time to gain those.  If you’re interested in patient safety, education, or teaching strategies broadly, seek out formal training to grow your skills in these areas. 

Dr Willett highlights the AAMC Leadership Courses and suggests young leaders join national organizations and annual society meetings to learn and grow. 

Take home points:

Whether it’s with your patients, with your learners, with your community, with your institution, you are a leader and be proud of that. Take that responsibility very seriously, because we need great leaders.  

When you’re invited to the table, don’t shy away, don’t think you’re not qualified, just try it, and then reflect on it, learn from it.   

You are a leader, so lead well, lead with confidence not arrogance; lead without ego.  

Support everyone around you, it’s more fun to be part of a team that shares your passions, love of what you do, and to pass that on to the next generation.

Go to meetings, do things that are uncomfortable, and make yourself stretch because that’s how you will get better.

Sorry listeners, this episode is not available for CME.


  1. Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine AIMW24
  2. This is Going to Hurt, Secret Diaries of a Young Doctor book by Dr Adam Kay
  3. Remarkably Bright Creatures book by Shelby Van Pelt


Listeners will gain knowledge in leadership practices in health professions education that are rooted in excellence and humility

Learning objectives

After listening to this episode listeners will…

  1. Describe specific aspects of leadership development or best practices that foster excellence without ego approach 
  2. Recognize opportunities for career steps that promote advancement in leadership positions in academic medicine 


Dr Willett reports no relevant financial disclosures. The Curbsiders report no relevant financial disclosures. 


Heublein M, Kryzhanovskaya E, Willett L.  “#40  Values Driven Leadership with Alliance Leader. The Curbsiders Teach Podcast. https://thecurbsiders.com/teach May 22, 2024.

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Episode Credits

Producer: Molly Heublein MD
Script: Era Kryzhanovskaya MD
Show notes/infographics/cover art: Molly Heublein MD
Hosts: Era Kryzhanovskaya MD ; Molly Heublein MD
Guest: Lisa Willett MD
Technical support: Podpaste
Theme Music: MorsyMusic

CME Partner


The Curbsiders are partnering with VCU Health Continuing Education to offer FREE continuing education credits for physicians and other healthcare professionals. Visit curbsiders.vcuhealth.org and search for this episode to claim credit.

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