The Finest Example


By: Susan Cochella, MD, MPH

Footprints of an Inspired Leader
Sonja Van Hala is stepping down as our Residency Program Director, leaving us better for her time in the role. While she isn’t perfect, she was effective in some unique ways. What insights can we glean from her unique brand of effectiveness?

Respect is a multiplier
Just as health care without error leads to better outcomes at lower cost, respectful leadership brings about better performance with less drama. The challenge is in how to do it. Sonja genuinely respects everyone with whom she interacts. It is just who she is. We see this in discussions about large questions with a diversity of opinions when goals are at odds, or when a more powerful individual is doing something that creates difficulty. She approaches each person and circumstance with curiosity and an assumption that everyone has good intent – all without giving away her decision-making power. In groups this builds trust, and in meetings this increases shared knowledge, improving decisions, and teamwork.

Perspective matters
Sonja takes seriously her responsibility to make the best decisions she can for the program. She does her due diligence to keep the big picture in perspective, ask the right questions, and trust her team to compose the detailed view in our respective areas. She avoids over-reacting to circumstances that could make a program director anxious, slowing us down with questions, listening, and then making a simple, clear statement of principle and what she would like to see.

Reality is Real, and a matter of perspective
Sonja keeps things in perspective when accepting tough realities. She holds the idea of truth lightly, appreciating that everyone’s reality is a matter of perspective. She starts her decision-making process with the awareness that other faculty members may have better knowledge than she does regarding specific details. Questions, listening, and pondering precede courageous decisions. Since tough decisions are made openly, slowly, and with integrity, we can get behind and stick with them.

It’s not worth it if you can’t stay authentic and fun
Kirsten Stoesser told me that one of her favorite things about our curriculum committee was that the group laughed a lot. I thought, “How can a highly productive team take the time?” Turns out, a habit of laughter keeps people in their frontal cortex. This team is authentic, using the full range of emotion and intellect to be nimble and highly productive.

Inspired leadership is responsible
Not only does Sonja leave our program stronger, better organized, and more prepared to manage change – she also leaves us with a capable successor.  Kirsten Stoesser, who has served as our Associate Program Director for the last several years, is an energetic, smart, and experienced leader, with a great staff to support her. I am excited to see her unique version of inspired leadership.

Susan Cochella

Susan E. W. Cochella, M.D., M.P.H., is a board-certified family medicine physician who specializes in chronic disease and full spectrum care for patients of all ages. She is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and practices at Sugar House Clinic. 


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