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Decorated Naval Commander & Transplant Surgeon Recounts Life's Biggest Leadership Lessons

Thursday, January 18, 2018

I’m pleased to introduce a former coaching client of mine, Dr. Hassan Tetteh, who I connected with back in 2011 shortly following his deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimroz provinces as a trauma surgeon in support of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Dr. Tetteh is a highly decorated Naval Commander, the former Director of Surgical Services for the USS Carl Vinson, a U.S. Congress Health Policy Fellow, and a physician, educator, and thoracic surgeon specializing in heart and lung transplants. Dr. Tetteh’s servant leadership has a lot to teach us both in our work and everyday lives. Here’s a summarized version of our recent discussion on leadership, his deployment experiences, and what’s helped him thrive as a surgeon helping others.

—Greg

In 2011 in the hot, dusty Helmand province of Afghanistan, Dr. Tetteh was working as a trauma surgeon at a small forward operating base, living out of a tent with no running water, and eating MRE rations. Young Marines with severe blast injuries were the primary casualties he saw coming off the flight line on a daily basis, many of them injured fatally or just stable enough to receive transport to base hospitals.

As Dr. Tetteh recalls:

“It was a challenging time, not only because of the living circumstances but because of what we were seeing. We were seeing lots of casualties. Lots of unfortunately, young Marines, who were being injured and seriously wounded.”

The base was remote and without access to the luxuries of Western civilization, which meant that the young doctor spent a lot of his downtime time reading. Dr. Tetteh’s colleague, an orthopedic surgeon also stationed at the operating base, was reading The Dream Manager  by Matthew Kelly and suggested it to him. Enamored with the concepts introduced by the book, Dr. Tetteh reached out to Matthew Kelly’s coaching network to process some of the trauma from his deployment and re-entry to civilian life. Through this turn of events, he met Coach Greg.

Dr. Tetteh reflects on what prompted him to reach out.

“I wouldn’t say that we all came back unscathed. We all came back home with post-traumatic stress. Our key, and our goal was that it didn’t become a post-traumatic stress disorder."

He did what all good leaders aren’t afraid to do: He asked for help. From the mass services offered on base to times spent confiding in the chaplain or other team members, he did what he could to survive the lasting effects of life in a warzone. Dr. Tetteh shares more on what kept him going during that time.

“My goal was to survive, and make sure I contributed to the team. Surviving meant a lot. I couldn’t keep things bottled up. I had to talk to someone when I was feeling a certain way. From a physical standpoint, it was also to keep myself healthy. Doing all the things great leaders know they must do. They must keep themselves healthy, so you have high energy and good resistance to ailments, cold, flus etc. I kept my mind positive. It kept me able to survive.”

In their coaching sessions, Dr. Tetteh and Greg talked through many of the typical reverse culture shock experiences that returning veterans experience, that is, coming back to their home nation and feeling alien in an otherwise familiar environment like the grocery store or a Starbucks.

But after weighing the costs of being a combat surgeon, Dr. Tetteh says that he wouldn’t have done anything differently with his career. He says:

“There’s probably nothing else in life that I will do, that will leave such an indelible mark. There’s nothing else in life that will be bigger than that experience.”

Every leader secretly hopes to say the same, but the truth is that today, not all leaders are getting that kind of fulfillment from their work. And it isn’t because we need to make a career change, necessarily. It’s because of some lack of clarity in our mission.

A mission is the magic ingredient to achieving something great, whether it’s a team of surgeons working to save lives or a gathering of skilled contractors looking at the building plans for a house. It doesn’t matter what kind of team you’re on; mission is crucial to every move you make.

Dr. Tetteh weighs in on this too:

“I realized very quickly that to get through this process, to stay on task, to stay focused, we really had to understand our mission. Our mission was to save the lives of young men and women and give them the best shot of surviving to get back to their loved ones. And in doing so, we were engaged in a very difficult task that was going to be emotionally and physically trying on us. And in recognizing that, we also had to rely on each other.”

Now a thoracic surgeon who specializes in heart and lung transplants, Dr. Tetteh has the privilege of delivering new life into patient’s bodies through the gift of organ transplants. He stands in the gap between death and life for the transplant candidate whose long wait for an organ is finally over. This journey from death to life resembles his own, from the grit of combat zones in Afghanistan to helping patients have longer, fuller lives here in the United States.

Dr. Tetteh remarks:

“I’m never lost on how fragile life is. And I think this is why transplant to me embodies everything that’s great about medicine. On the one hand, you see the tragedy. But on the other hand, you use this great thing that we’re able to do because of our technology.”

 
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