Community//

Dr. Philip Stieg: “Develop a unique approach in your own field”

…In medicine the benefits are clear. Being a thought leader and pushing a transformational idea toward adoption — those are very meaningful in terms of patient health. If you are out there promoting your idea and showing that it works, patients will flock to you. After all, everyone wants to be treated by the best, to have […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

…In medicine the benefits are clear. Being a thought leader and pushing a transformational idea toward adoption — those are very meaningful in terms of patient health. If you are out there promoting your idea and showing that it works, patients will flock to you. After all, everyone wants to be treated by the best, to have the best opportunity for good health.

One caution: If you truly believe in your concept and start talking about it early on, along the path to acceptance you will no doubt find that everyone else wants to jump on the bandwagon and claim credit for your idea. It can be frustrating, but you just have to stay on message and remain committed to the goal, which is spreading the word and getting your ideas accepted.

For example, there has been a battle going on for 70 years over how to treat carotid blockages. I have long believed that intervention is the best solution — I perform carotid endarterectomies, in which a neurosurgeon removes the plaque that’s clogging the artery and preventing good blood flow to the brain. Other doctors recommend a watch-and-wait approach. I’ve tried to be a thought leader on this, but it’s been an uphill battle until recently when new evidence emerged that supports the case for intervention. I’m personally gratified, of course, but the real point is that if more neurosurgeons see the advantages of surgery, more patients will have good outcomes. And that’s what it’s all about, after all.


I had the distinct pleasure to interview Dr. Philip Stieg. Dr. Stieg is a world-renowned neurosurgeon with expertise in cerebrovascular disorders and skull base surgery. He is a widely published author and internationally known lecturer and is routinely named by Castle Connolly Medical as one of the nation’s Top Doctors. Dr. Stieg is frequently featured in the media for his expertise and commentary on a breaking news in healthcare, and he hosts the new podcast This Is Your Brain with Dr. Phil Stieg, which provides engaging conversations about how the brain works, what can go wrong, and how to meet the challenges of brain disorders.


Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Steig. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share with us most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Certainly, the most life-altering experiences I’ve had — the ones that laid the foundation for my approach to integrated medicine — were two patients I treated for what we refer to as “cerebrovascular accidents,” or CVAs. Strokes, burst aneurysms, injuries that cause bleeding in the brain, these are all CVAs. The job of a neurosurgeon has traditionally been to stop the bleeding and — to whatever extent possible — repair whatever caused it. Our job was done after that. But within the past decade, I’ve had two patients who made me realize that a neurosurgeon’s job is not “done” when the crisis has passed.

One was a woman who emerged from a hemorrhagic stroke in good physical shape, but with significant cognitive and language issues. I realized I could not possibly just hand her off to get whatever rehab she could — it became apparent that my job as her neurosurgeon was to see her through to recovery. I made sure that my treatment plan for her included not just the surgery but the follow-up: the emotional, rehabilitative, neuropsychological, and cognitive services she required to ensure that a successful surgery led to a successful outcome.

The other was a photographer whose brain bleed left him significantly compromised physically but intact intellectually. Imagine the devastation experienced by a visual artist whose vision is shot, the despair felt by an active, globetrotting photojournalist who finds himself confined to a wheelchair? And yet I found myself marveling at how determined he was to show the world he was still “in there” — he was still himself, and he still had inner vision even if his visual skills were badly damaged. In his case, he needed intensive physical rehabilitation, but it was always clear that he remained on the inside.

Both of these patients made me realize how complex our sense of self can be — do we define ourselves by our physical selves, our cognitive selves, or some combination of these? These patients transformed how I thought about my own role as their neurosurgeon. I now see my job as helping my patients achieve their best total selves after surgery, knowing that the “self” is a mysterious concept that they must define individually.

What was the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Neurosurgical mistakes in the operating are very rare (and never funny), so I have to answer this question from a perspective outside the OR. In neurosurgery, as in any job, only a part of career development happens when you’re actually doing the job you’re in training for. Much of it happens instead in the larger context of the workplace. We all have to develop the savvy to recognize the other elements of working alongside our colleagues: the emotions, the egos, and the office politics that influence how we get our jobs done.

By nature, I’m a very frank, straight-shooter type who prefers to address problems head-on, with complete candor. One of my earliest mistakes was to assume everyone is like this — which they certainly are not. I had to learn the hard way that diplomacy is often a better solution than candor. People can be defensive, protective of their careers (especially in the high-stakes, competitive academic milieu), even passive-aggressive. I learned that if I didn’t hone my diplomacy skills I would pay for it later when someone I might have inadvertently offended with an unfiltered comment took revenge in some unexpected way.

In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is someone with a belief in, and passion for, the transformational nature of a particular idea, and who uses that passion to drive others. We’ve seen examples in FDR’s passion for the New Deal, Ronald Reagan’s belief that we could end the Cold War, Martin Luther King’s commitment to civil rights, Winston Churchill’s strategic command of World War II.

In medicine, I think about Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, who discovered the link between medical students performing autopsies and the infections that were killing new mothers in an adjacent maternity clinic in Vienna in the 1840s. This was before Pasteur, before Lister, before germ theory. Semmelweis was a laughingstock for his insistence that some unknown material carried from autopsy room to delivery room on the unwashed hands of medical students was causing puerperal fever (the deadly “childbed fever”). Semmelweis was a thought leader, indeed, and he paid a price for it. Even after showing that a hand-washing protocol reduced infection rates, he was ridiculed for his far-out theory. He himself died in ignominy, and it was decades before his idea became widely accepted.

I would also put Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on my list of most important thought leaders. His was some of the most common-sense, intelligent writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Here he was, confined to a wheelchair after a youthful diving accident, and he ends up a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist and commentator, providing thought leadership to millions of readers. As Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, youdon’t understand it well enough.” That was the beauty in Krauthammer’s thought leadership — he not only understood our complex times so well, but he explained it all so beautifully.

Influencers are important but different. When I think about influencers I think about the Malcom Gladwell anecdote from “The Tipping Point” about Hush Puppies. Those people who started wearing Hush Puppies all of a sudden were influencers — they were already known in some circles, so people who admired them wanted to copy their choice of footwear. They didn’t invent a new shoe or transform the world with a new idea, they just influenced lots of other people in adopting their choice. That’s not thought leadership.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this? And can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Certainly, in medicine the benefits are clear. Being a thought leader and pushing a transformational idea toward adoption — those are very meaningful in terms of patient health. If you are out there promoting your idea and showing that it works, patients will flock to you. After all, everyone wants to be treated by the best, to have the best opportunity for good health.

One caution: If you truly believe in your concept and start talking about it early on, along the path to acceptance you will no doubt find that everyone else wants to jump on the bandwagon and claim credit for your idea. It can be frustrating, but you just have to stay on message and remain committed to the goal, which is spreading the word and getting your ideas accepted.

For example, there has been a battle going on for 70 years over how to treat carotid blockages. I have long believed that intervention is the best solution — I perform carotid endarterectomies, in which a neurosurgeon removes the plaque that’s clogging the artery and preventing good blood flow to the brain. Other doctors recommend a watch-and-wait approach. I’ve tried to be a thought leader on this, but it’s been an uphill battle until recently when new evidence emerged that supports the case for intervention. I’m personally gratified, of course, but the real point is that if more neurosurgeons see the advantages of surgery, more patients will have good outcomes. And that’s what it’s all about, after all.

Based on your experience, can you please share 5 things you should do if you want to become a ‘thought leader’ in your industry?

  1. Develop a unique approach in your own field. In any profession, but especially in a career as intense and focused as neurosurgery, it can be very easy to “stay in your lane” and just work on becoming the best at what you do. But to be a thought leader you need to carve out a point of differentiation. Don’t just be better than everyone else — take a unique position that makes you stand out in your field.
  2. Know the competition. What are others in your field saying and doing about the issues that confront your industry? Don’t be blindsided by someone else seizing your message — make sure your perspective stays associated with you and doesn’t get diluted across your industry. Stay on message, and keep an eye on your competitors.
  3. Get out of your office. You’ll never get to thought-leader status by staying home. Go to meetings and conferences, talk to others in your industry, and related industries, and get other perspectives. Write letters to the editor, submit op-ed pieces, start a blog or a podcast, and get your well-formulated viewpoints out to the public. Ask for speaking slots at conferences, and up your game in making great presentations.
  4. Harness the power of social media. Get your voice out there. Don’t use your posts just to promote yourself — instead comment on the issues, take a position, engage others in conversation. Be provocative and stay authoritative.
  5. Stay flexible. Be prepared to change course if your strategy or tactics aren’t working. Be open to new ideas, new approaches, and new ways of getting your message across.

Was there a point in your career when you realized that you were a prominent thought leader?

I’ve never really thought of myself that way — I think “thought leader” is a description that others put on you, not something you can claim for yourself. Medicine is not about “I” but “we.” But I’ve had ideas about the delivery of care, and how important it is that care is integrated, comprehensive, and as we’ve implemented those ideas we’ve seen how transformative they are in terms of patient quality of life. The two patients I mentioned at the beginning — their outcomes are exactly what I mean. The statistics bear it out — our approach is amazing.

Who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person?

I’m a big admirer of Winston Churchill as a thought leader in politics. Pablo Picasso in art, Vince Lombardi in sports, Jonas Salk in health, Einstein in science. In medicine, I would cite Godfrey Hounsfield, who invented the CT scanner in 1972. His contribution has been amazing — he made the inner world of the body visible to healers on the outside. In the 1960s Chinese doctor, Youyou Tu discovered arteminisin, which cut worldwide malaria deaths in half, but her work was not recognized for decades. Imagine the dedication and humility it took not only to make the discovery but to stay under the radar all that time.

There has been some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

If someone is actively striving to be a “thought leader” just to lay claim to the title, it’s likely that a person is motivated by the personal gain that may come of it. True thought leaders are absolutely possessed by a concept and don’t worry about what people call them.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

My advice for thriving would be to always question the process. Look for better ways to do things. In medicine, that means listening to the patient.

As for avoiding burnout, I would advise having other interests to keep you feeling more whole. Understand your body and what it’s telling you — when you experience things like sleeplessness, headaches, irritability, that’s your body telling you that you’re nervous, anxious, pushing too hard. And listen to your friends — true friends will tell you when you’re headed over a cliff.

As a person of enormous influence, if you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I could help people understand one thing, it would be that we all have to take responsibility for our own health. I see patients who have a lifetime of bad habits behind them and they come to me to fix them. The data support behavioral patterns as significant predictors of disease, and it starts early in life. Prevention is so much more effective than treatment.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

We’ll have to adapt this to be applicable to more than just men, but Vince Lombardi said that “the quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.” I truly believe that — not just because I’m a neurosurgeon, where by definition I have to be committed to excellence, but because I have always aimed for excellence in whatever I do. Whether it’s being a dad, or playing golf, or teaching neurosurgery residents how to perfect our craft, I always strive to be the very best I can.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

5 Strategies To Grow Your Healthcare Practice with Dr. Janelle Luk.

by Krish Chopra
Community//

“Step away from your phones, computers and TVs.” With Dr. Mauricio Heilbron

by Beau Henderson
Community//

How you live dictates how you die—but where to start?

by Suzannah Bozzone, MD
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.