Howard Green, MD, Chief of Anesthesiology at Winchester Medical Center in Virginia, recalls his experience of leadership in action while in the Marine Corps — and lessons that have stayed with him for more than 3 decades.
Mary Jane Kornacki: I’m speaking with Dr. Howard Green. He is the Chief of Anesthesiology at Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Virginia. He also has a military background, and when he left the military, he was a captain in the Marine Corps. Dr. Green?
Howard Green: I learned an awful lot of leadership lessons in my time in the military. I was on active duty for 6 years, and I guess the person who most vividly comes to mind — I was a helicopter pilot, and my squadron commanding officer was a colonel. He was this little short man, and with these steely blue eyes, and he just terrified me. I was really intimidated by him, and when he spoke to you, he looked directly into your eyes, and never broke eye contact, and it was the most intimidating thing. And so, I determined that I was not going to break eye contact either. I could tell this was a test, and it was really effective, and it absolutely put him in charge.
Even though I was terrified of him, I learned a lot from him. One of the things I learned was, we went on this deployment, a 7-month deployment to Okinawa — Okinawa is a little island far away from the mainland of Japan, and there still is a Marine Corps air station there — and there are all these young Marines far from home with nothing to do on a little island, and he understood that, and understood that it was his job as a leader to keep these guys out of trouble, and to keep them occupied, and it needed to play to their strengths.
One of the things that he arranged was this organization. I don’t know if he started it, but there’s this military-wide running club called the Hash House Harriers. This happened on Saturday mornings, and it involves these guys with bags of colored talcum powder or something, and they were the hares, and they’d go run. They had a 15-minute head start, and they would mark the trail with all these false leads with this chalk, or whatever it was, and then all the rest of us would take off after them. We were the harriers, and you had these special whistles, and you whistled when you found a dead end or the right way to go.
And these runs would go on, and they didn’t really go anywhere. There was no goal except to catch the hares, and if you caught them, then you became the next hares. Well, I never was a hare. I was always trailing way behind, but it was a blast. We would follow them through the jungle and through cemeteries and through little village markets, and strike. I think we even went through stores sometimes.
And it inspired me. I thought, “This guy knows.” And this colonel was right there in the midst of it, doing this with us, doing this with the young Marines, and I thought, “Okay, I get this. This is a guy who knows how to lead. He’s part of us. He’s showing us the way to go. He’s showing us how to keep out of trouble, how to keep these young guys out of trouble.”
It’s this highly athletic thing, which appeals to all Marines, and to this day — I mean, this is now how many years later, 30, 31 years later — I think fondly back upon those things. When we were in the United States, when the squadron was back, he did the same thing. We’d have these field days with different, crazy events, and he was great. I learned a lot from him, even though he terrified me.
This story was recorded at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s 28th Annual National Forum in Orlando, Florida, on December 4–7, 2016 by Mary Jane Kornacki on behalf of NEJM Catalyst and originally appeared on the NEJM Catalyst website on February 7, 2017. We wish to thank IHI for support of this project, especially Madge Kaplan for her technical advice and guidance. Click here for more Lessons in Leadership stories.