Lesson 9: Set a positive example.

I am about to perform an important public service. By the time you finish reading this lesson, you may even want to thank me.

My first comments are addressed not only to young and inexperienced forensic pathologists—either in training or relatively new to a full-time job—but also to those who have been laboring as deputy medical examiners for many years. If this applies to you, then perhaps it is your career goal to one day become chief of a large medical examiner office. If that is what you want, more power to you! It is important to have big dreams.

But before you dream on, I have a few questions for you.

What kind of person are you?

Sure, I already know you are intelligent—maybe even brilliant. You are a graduate of a medical school, a highly trained forensic pathologist, board certified, clearly an expert in your field. Perhaps you have written important papers in forensic pathology, and maybe you have written book chapters. Perhaps you are even an editor of a major textbook (please don’t get any ideas that I am directing my comments to anyone in particular—just follow my points)!

Are you the kind of person with idiosyncrasies—characteristics that may make you hard to tolerate? Do you yell at secretaries, investigators and autopsy aides? Do you come to work in a foul mood? Or do your moods swing widely in cyclothymic fashion? Do you lose your temper? Do you curse? Are you viciously impulsive? Are you depressed? Are you sad? Are you a worrier?

How disciplined are you with your speech? Do you know when to speak out and when to keep silent? Do you try to understand a situation thoroughly before speaking about it? Do you speak kindly to grieving family members and others outside the office? Or do you only speak kindly to those whom you perceive are important to your career and job?

Are you inflexible? Intolerant? Impatient? Rude? Overbearing?

If you harbor these idiosyncrasies, I do not want to discourage you. I want to encourage you.

We need brilliant people like you in forensic pathology. We need your expertise. We need your invaluable input. The people you work with will learn when to avoid you when you are in a foul mood. They will learn to tolerate your mood swings and your erratic behavior. They may admire your brilliance while they learn to chuckle at your failings.

We need you working by our side, but please…please…PLEASE!

DO NOT EVER BECOME A CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER!

Those of us who have been successful chief medical examiners make the job look easy. We carry on our duties in a seemingly effortless fashion. We take care of crises before they arise. We inspire those who work with us and for us to do good work. The office carries on its work year after year after year without scandal or public embarrassment. We work effectively and cooperatively with outside agencies. The office runs efficiently. People who work there look happy. Several even wait in line for a job opening and an opportunity to work at the office.

Sometimes we, the successful chief medical examiners, become victims of our own success. The ease and efficiency of the office looks effortless. At times, the success and our contribution to it—invisible as they may seem—are taken for granted.

Sometimes even those closest to the picture may not realize the careful thought, the discipline and the planning behind setting a positive example.

Over the years that I have worked as a resident in pathology, as a hospital pathologist, as a deputy medical examiner, and finally as a chief, I have learned one basic fact: the boss sets the tone for the operation. I have worked with my share of quirky but brilliant individuals. One staff pathologist who trained me during my residency was famous for mood swings. Often, the secretaries in the front office would signal to me if this individual was in a good or foul mood prior to my appointment. As long as a person like this is not the chief, we could all figure out ways to manage.

But when a person like that is the chief, it poisons the atmosphere of the whole office. Those who work in it are sullen. They bicker with each other. The work is sloppy and careless. Interactions with others become inefficient, and misunderstandings arise.

Can a good chief always guarantee that everyone will always be happy? No! Causes for misunderstanding will always arise. Nevertheless, the erratic chief with an undisciplined temper will bring profound difficulties to the work environment. The excrement indeed rolls downhill!

This is why I feel I am performing a public service by warning the quirky and the character-flawed among us not to become chief medical examiners. The job is already hard enough; why make it harder?

When I walked into the office in the morning when I was a chief, I assumed “chiefly” attributes. I put away my personal worries and fears, and I smiled. Although I am shy by nature, I stood up straight, walked confidently, and turned into an extrovert, greeting everyone I met. Before settling down in my personal office, I walked around the facility and engaged in what I have heard referred to as “management by walking around.” I greeted everyone with a smile, inquiring about family members and other people important to the men and women I worked with. I inspected the office and the environment, studying it to see if everything was running smoothly and if the office was reasonably clean and well ordered. I noted if the office was busy with a heavy workload that morning or if all was quiet. Although I did not offer to do anyone’s work for him or her, I made note of any problems or difficulties and I discussed them with the office administrator/chief investigator.

During times of stress, when most of the people at work were aware of political issues that impacted the office, I did not show any hint of worry. I was optimistic.

Optimism does not come naturally to any human being. It is learned. I am grateful to my father for teaching me to be optimistic, not only by his instruction but also by his example. Anyone can be pessimistic, but it takes faith, courage and character to be optimistic.

One of the most difficult jobs of the chief is to discipline others in the office. Over time, I have noticed that most people work in cycles. At times, they put out their best effort, but other times they become careless. I have learned not to be disappointed when this cycle occurs. My job was to encourage them when they were doing well and reprimand them when they were not doing well. This part of the job would be much more difficult if I did not present a positive example of steady, dependable professionalism. My work does not go in cycles. I remain a consummate professional at all times, doing the best that I can do. One who aspires to become a chief must also be a steady professional person under all circumstances. Otherwise, how can the one you are disciplining feel the need or the inspiration to do any better?

Beyond intelligence and job knowledge, the chief medical examiner needs several attributes. The chief must be a visionary. He or she must be polished but tough. He or she must be fair and balanced. And he or she must set the kind of positive example that others are willing to follow.