A hero just needs to get up in the morning, be a good leader, an inspiration to others, and be willing to do the right thing, no matter the cost. Heroes are traditionally thought of in terms of military engagements, but they exist in everyday life as well. A child who stands up to bullying, a woman fighting against sexual harassment, a surgeon making a life or death decision — these are all heroes in my book.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned in The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Trent Douglas, co-owner of Restore SD Plastic Surgery in San Diego, CA. Dr. Douglas is now in private practice after having served 22 years as a Navy plastic surgeon. He sits on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and regularly speaks at national meetings and contributes to patient safety and public education initiatives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a Marine Corps family where my father was a Marine Aviator flying F-4 Phantoms in the 1960s — 1980’s. We started on the west coast while my father was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in what is now a bustling part of Orange County. I was born in 1969 which is the same year he was selected as one of the original 12 Top Gun air crews and flew over 450 combat missions in Viet Nam. He recently contributed to the unique history of the area by doing a piece with the Orange County Historical Society, recounting the days of driving through the orange and lemon groves to get to the base before the area became heavily populated. As a military child, I became used to moving frequently and attending different schools in different parts of the country. At various times I lived in California, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Florida, and Virginia. We have a history of service in our family and my maternal grandfather was a WWII era B-29 pilot and my sister is a U.S. Marshal. In time, I took my own turn in fulfilling the family tradition by joining the Navy as a physician and serving as a Flight Surgeon at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar before completing my surgical training and ensuing 22-year Naval career.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Today I am a private practice plastic surgeon in La Jolla, California. I took my many years of performing complex reconstructive surgery in the Navy and have leveraged that unique knowledge and experience into creating a world-class practice that serves San Diego as well as the greater Southern California area and international clients.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served on active duty with the Navy from 1995–2017 as a Plastic Surgeon and did a deployment to Afghanistan as well as multiple Humanitarian Aid missions to Southeast Asia. My scope of practice ranged from working on war casualties in Kandahar to performing cleft lip repairs in Viet Nam and Cambodia. The work unique to my career and specialty was performing very complex reconstructive surgery on our wounded warriors who were badly injured from IED blasts, gunshot wounds, and burns. As the number of injured soldiers, sailors, and Marines fortunately tapered off toward the end of my career, I used my experience to move into breast cancer reconstruction as well as the beginnings of my aesthetic surgery career.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
The most interesting story that I experienced during my military career involved caring for one of our U.S. Embassy employees in Cambodia. Near the end of our humanitarian aid mission, the U.S. Embassy sent representatives to the hospital ship for a reception. On the drive down, they experienced a tragic car crash. As the Surgical Director, I was charged with retrieving them, rendering emergency care, and then evacuating them to Singapore for definitive care. It was a true lesson in leadership, innovation, and teamwork. The helicopter pilots did not hesitate to leap into action despite being during a torrential downpour. After locating the wreck and extracting the passengers, our trauma team performed life-saving maneuvers on the way to the ship. After arriving on the ship, we utilized telemedicine to consult with a neurosurgeon back in the US regarding the severity and prognosis of a severe head injury. In less than 24 hours the weather had cleared enough for a medical evacuation to Singapore and we were all pleased to hear of our patient’s survival, rehabilitation, and gradual return to her daily life. The take-away lesson was — having the resources of a Naval vessel at my disposal was a very efficient way to make things happen. I defined the problem, asked for support and received it, delegated tasks that were followed, and the entire crew came together to save a stranger in what was less than optimal weather and operating conditions.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
One of the heroes that I know is Marine Colonel Newell (Otis) Day. During the Gulf War, as a junior pilot, he was flying his F/A-18 Hornet in Iraq when he heard an Air Force pilot get shot down and eject in enemy territory. Without regard for his own safety, he then proceeded to the area and flew a secure pattern fending off attackers over the downed pilot until search-and-rescue team arrived and collected the pilot. There are a few versions of this story and it is mentioned in the book “Hornets Over Iraq” but then 1stLT Day flew until his own aircraft was out of fuel and made an emergency landing on a road in hostile territory. A refueling unit was dispatched as a variety of resources were brought to bear on the enemy combatants. After waiting patiently in hostile territory to refuel, 1stLT Day was then able to take off and safely return to base. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. I have known Otis (one of the best call-signs in all of aviation by the way) for over 20 years now and have always respected his skills as an aviator, leader, and direct communicator. He and my father were both in the Pentagon on 9/11, but that is a story for another day.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
In my experience a hero is someone who knows the situation and is smart enough to be scared, yet keeps going back despite the presence of danger, always willing to sacrifice themselves in the greater good of their colleagues, the mission, and their family.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
No, a hero just needs to get up in the morning, be a good leader, an inspiration to others, and be willing to do the right thing, no matter the cost. Heroes are traditionally thought of in terms of military engagements, but they exist in everyday life as well. A child who stands up to bullying, a woman fighting against sexual harassment, a surgeon making a life or death decision — these are all heroes in my book.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Not everyone is a leader.
a. The military thinks it can teach leadership — it can’t. It can teach leadership skills, but in my experience true natural leaders exist and use these skills productively in the greater construct of their own intangible characteristics that make others drawn to them. I have seen a few people learn leadership and become effective although not exceptional leaders. Lastly, it is important to realize that there are those who are destined never to lead. The world needs followers too, so it’s OK if not everyone develops into or has the natural inclination to leader others.
2. It’s OK to ask permission after you have already started
a. Great ideas sometimes need a little nurturing and toying around with various scenarios, materials, environments, etc. before they are put in front of the boss. Some of the best ideas that I have seen have been presented by those who took some initiative, fleshed out the important details, examined the critical early failure points, and then came forward to ask permission to keep going. To me, that is a project that is going to succeed because of the care and forethought that has already been put into the process. It is typically at this point where the benefits of collaborative work come into play and new and fresh perspectives add to the prospect of success by finding new tests and failure points along the way until the concept has been finely honed and thoroughly vetted.
3. Not everyone has to think outside the box, but someone does.
a. The military is based on the premise of discipline, the chain-of-command, and following orders. For many years this has proven to be a tried-and-true way of waging warfare and protecting national security. As we now live in an era of asymmetric warfare, terrorism, and global threats, the days of two superpowers posturing against each other are long gone. Following rote doctrine and protocols has many benefits for both tactics and safety, but innovating thinking, integration of technology in novel ways, and utilizing the power of diversity to overcome mainstream thinking opens new pathways for reaching goals.
4. The problem is never as bad as it sounds on the initial report, sometimes it’s worse.
a. As a surgeon and as a former Naval Officer, picking up the phone or opening an email can bring good or bad news. I have found over the years that the good news is never quite as good as it initially seems, and the bad news is either not as bad as it seems or worse than it seems. Many a well-intentioned junior surgery resident or junior officer has brought a detail to my attention that then unleashes a cascade of additional questions, problems solving, and occasionally crisis management. My point here is to learn not to overreact to seemingly good or bad news — take some time to digest it and formulate a clear response and decisive course of action.
5. Learn something from all your leaders — the good and the bad.
a. As we all progress along our respective career paths, there are innumerable learning opportunities, many of them nearly invisible unless we are looking for them. When in the presence of a good and effective leader, stop and contemplate why you consider that leader to be good — is it personality, charisma, organization, presentation skills, or reputation? Equally, and probably more importantly, take note of bad leadership characteristics and why you and your colleagues dislike a leader — is it style, laziness, unattainable expectations, unfair evaluations, or an unwillingness to do that which you ask of others? Over the years, I have learned more from the bad leaders that I have encountered than the good ones.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
My military experience definitely helped me to prepare for opening a private practice. The military is a microcosm of society and reflects great diversity regarding culture, language, family values, and geographical regional norms. I have learned there is true value in building an entity with people who have different views and life experiences rather than surrounding myself with those of similar backgrounds and opinions. Being able to interact with colleagues of different ages, backgrounds, parts of the country, and socioeconomic statuses allowed me to be more comfortable with running a business, managing millennials, and figuring out what motivates employees. The military entrusts a great deal of responsibility to those who demonstrate skill and competence. It is through my military experience that I came to value demonstrated competence as my most valued attribute in employees. It does not matter what University name is on the diploma, it does not matter what your family name is — all that matters is if you can do that job that I am asking you to do.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I am very fortunate to not suffer from PTSD or have been otherwise adversely affected by my time in a war zone or working with some of the most horrific injuries one can imagine. One of the biggest insights that I gained was on a humanitarian deployment to the outlying southern islands of the Philippines. Our team arrived on the hospital ship USNS Mercy to provide a wide range of medical, dental, veterinary, and public health missions. During my time on shore, I was constantly amazed by how happy the people were despite living in absolute squalor. As we moved on to Viet Nam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, I saw the same thing repeatedly. I truly helped me gain perspective on life and commit myself to living a simple and authentic existence. Rather than try to keep up with the Jones’s or worry about accumulating material possessions, I realized that my happiness in life came from the simple things found in the day-to-day. Taking good care of a patient, enjoying a beautiful sunset, watching my children play sports, or visiting with old friends are but a few things that I have found allow me to not only thrive, but to excel in my daily life.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am currently working with two companies that have long-acting non-narcotic numbing medications that are used during surgery. These medications alleviate postoperative pain for up to 3–4 days and significantly decrease the amount of postoperative opioid medication that is required. As we face a national opioid abuse epidemic, it is nice to be part of the solution moving forward and give surgical patients the opportunity to recover with less exposure to narcotic pain medication.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Creating highly functional teams has been one of my best and most reproducible accomplishments. A team needs a leader — one who is compassionate and listens to all team members but still is firmly in charge of the direction in which the team is heading. Collaborative thinking breeds more good ideas and success than the traditional self-promotional efforts of employees trying to outshine each other through both work-product and political maneuvering. The best ideas often come from the most unexpected sources so making sure each member of the team regardless of seniority feels that they have a voice in the success of the team is paramount. Recognizing talent, cultivating a successor, sharing the credit, and facilitating opportunities for team growth are the hallmarks of what I consider to be the faculties required of a great leader.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The best leaders are the best delegators. Leaders need to trust their managers and build processes that allow managers to have some boundary managed autonomy. In my military experience, the best and most respected leaders were those who were seen among those they were leading, getting out in the field, down in the engine room, out on the runway. Leaders whom are perceived by their subordinates to be interested in everyone and engaged in the day-to-day running of the enterprise are apt to be far more successful than those who hide away in a fancy office holding meetings and trying to further their own personal agenda.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I will be eternally grateful to my three mentors in the Department of Plastic Surgery at Emory University and the U.S. Navy — Dr. T. Roderick Hester, Dr. Foad Nahai, and VADM Lisa Franchetti. As a true patriot and great American, Dr. Hester selected me to fill one of the three very prestigious and sought-after residency positions at Emory. Each year the program receives over 300 applications for those three spots, so to have been chosen was a true honor. Dr Hester and I shared many conversations and having been the first military resident through the program, we co-educated each other about what I would be doing after graduation and ensuring that I had the best training to care for our wounded warriors both abroad and at home. This relationship fostered a training pipeline through which three other military surgeons have now trained at the Emory Plastic Surgery program. We should all rest better knowing that our military surgeons have the opportunity to train at what is considered one of the best plastic surgery training programs in the country. Secondly, Dr. Nahai shared with me not only his many skills, his wisdom, and his experience, but he also shared his appreciation of the United States. As a first-generation immigrant, he and his family fled Iran in the late 1970’s and eventually made their way to America where they went on to thrive. I have never forgotten his support of my military service and the many kind words that he has sent during my long deployments. Lastly, VADM Franchetti — without a doubt the best Navy leader that I have ever seen. I had the pleasure of serving under then CAPT Franchetti on one of our humanitarian aid missions in Southeast Asia. Over the course of nine months, I watched as she seemingly effortless assembled a team, lead a multinational mission through 5 countries, yet always had time for me and showed an interest in the surgical aspects of the mission. I quickly recognized her leadership skills and took many of my lessons in team building, collaborative thinking, and interpersonal interaction from her. She is now a three-star admiral and I think the sky is the limit for her. I remain in contact with all my mentors and truly thank them for the positive impact they had on my life and career.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would like to think that I am an ever-evolving product of my background, my present, and what I aspire to be in the future. The past and the present represent years of dedication, sacrifice, and delayed gratification in the pursuit of my career goals and the service of my country. As a surgeon, a father, a husband, and a business partner, my goal is to make the world a little better each day. My experiences have taught me to not only rely on myself, but to build strong relationships that allow me to learn from others in a collaborative manner. My wife and I both encourage our children to pursue careers in which they give something back to society rather than take from it. My success in the military and in the field of plastic surgery has allowed me to raise awareness of the critical role that military surgeons and facilities play in the comprehensive treatment of our wounded warriors as well as the unheralded humanitarian missions which have been among the most gratifying deployments of both my military and surgical careers. The ability to positively influence the course of a child’s life by repairing a cleft lip, the opportunity to mentor a junior surgery resident, and the excitement of seeing my children grow and succeed are all fuel that I use to bring joy to my daily life and live as simply and authentically as I can.
You are a person of great 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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire any movement, it would be “Serve the Country”. Regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or disability, everyone should have the opportunity to experience the value of service to the country. There are great examples from the not too distant past that should be remembered amid ongoing social change, cultural evolution, and the search for purpose. Franklin Roosevelt’s building and overhauling of the American infrastructure allowed service in a dark economic time and John F. Kennedy’s immortal words “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” still stimulate vigorous discussions to this day. I think we could build a generation of giving and goodwill if a movement erupted that valued service to the country that extended beyond the military or peace corps. Thinking not of what we can do overseas, but how we can invest in our future here at home. We don’t need a president to make America great, Americans from all walks of life make America great with small acts every single day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is tough — get a helmet.” This saying came to me in my college years and helped me to formulate a strong work ethic, a will to succeed, and a knowledge that I had to make my own way in life. As Americans, we all have a tremendous amount of opportunities and it is up to each individual to decide how those opportunities are either seized or lost. Not many people are going to help along the way and being able to endure tough days, bitter disappointment, and failure ultimately provide the tools that leaders need to succeed and enter leadership positions.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
After much deliberation, I came up with not one, but three very different people. In no particular order, I would do breakfast with Sir Richard Branson — an enlightened innovator, humanitarian, entrepreneur, and philanthropist — just plain out cool. For happy hour, I’d have to say drinks with Lady Gaga would be my choice — eclectic, sophisticated, and artistic, I’m sure the topics of conversation would be fascinating. For a hearty steak dinner, I would go with fellow University of Virginia alumnus, Chris Long. Going from the stage of professional football to a calming influence after the racially charged riots in Charlottesville, to a budding humanitarian and philanthropist, I would love to raise a glass with Chris and toast to how well he has represented the ideals of UVa.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.