Cultivating Charisma in the Clinical Encounter (and emulating Marcus Welby, M.D.)

If medical journals are the religious texts that guide me as a physician, the New York Times has become the secular source of illumination for my relationship to my country and the world I live in.

That doesn’t exactly mean that I feel like a citizen of the world. Quite the opposite, particularly now, with just me and my horses sharing our existence on a peaceful plot of land within walking distance of the Canadian border; my physical world seems quite small even though I am aware, sometimes painfully but with an obvious distance, of the calamity of our planet.

Early Sunday morning, drinking coffee in bed as the gray morning light revealed the outline of the trees and pasture outside my window, I read the Times on my iPad as usual and came across an article titled “What makes people charismatic and how you can be too”.

The article claims that charisma can be learned and cultivated, and that thought resonated with me as I think often about how we as physicians have roles to fill in the stories of diseases and transitions in our patients lives. I try to be the kind of doctor each patient needs as I walk into each exam room.

The article mentions three pillars of charisma: Presence, Power and Warmth.

As I think of my current third guiding light in addition to my medical journals and the New York Times, my DVD collection of the Marcus Welby, M.D. shows, which is shorthand for his character and all the other role models I carry mental images and video clips of, Charisma is definitely something we need to consider and cultivate in our careers.

My job, my reason for being, is to guide and motivate people, and how I come across, how people perceive me, helps determine my chances of filling that role.

So, these pillars of Charisma in the archetypal physician, in my case Marcus Welby, look somewhat like this – first quoting the Times:

“The first pillar, presence, involves residing in the moment. When you find your attention slipping while speaking to someone, refocus by centering yourself. Pay attention to the sounds in the environment, your breath and the subtle sensations in your body — the tingles that start in your toes and radiate throughout your frame.”

Marcus Welby was certainly a keen observer and a good listener. He was also aware of and in tune with his own feelings. Thinking back over my own writing, I recall posts like “The Power of Focus” and “Today’s Masterpiece”. This is about being present so you can connect with each patient, and also so you can do your best under whatever circumstances exist in that moment.

Power, the second pillar, involves breaking down self-imposed barriers rather than achieving higher status. It’s about lifting the stigma that comes with the success you’ve already earned. Impostor syndrome, as it’s known, is the prevalent fear that you’re not worthy of the position you’re in. The higher up the ladder you climb, the more prevalent the feeling becomes.

The key to this pillar is to remove self-doubt, assuring yourself that you belong and that your skills and passions are valuable and interesting to others. It’s easier said than done.”

I think many of us are afraid to use the power we have and just as the Times article points out, power is not about status; in medicine it is about power to help, fix or influence. Consider their words “assuring yourself that you belong and that your skills and passions are valuable” – Marcus Welby certainly didn’t seem to doubt that when he spoke up to his hospital medical staff or to patients and families. He projected a quiet power and confidence that we, today, as cogs in the big healthcare machine may not always feel that we have. My own writing includes “Where is Relationship, Authority and Trust in Healthcare Today?” and “Getting it Right”.

“The third pillar, warmth, is a little harder to fake. This one requires you to radiate a certain kind of vibe that signals kindness and acceptance. It’s the sort of feeling you might get from a close relative or a dear friend. It’s tricky, considering those who excel here are people who invoke this feeling in others, even when they’ve just met.

To master this pillar, Ms. Cabane suggests imagining a person you feel great warmth and affection for, and then focusing on what you enjoy most about your shared interactions. You can do this before interactions, or in shorter spurts while listening to someone else speak. This, she says, can change body chemistry in seconds, making even the most introverted among us exude the type of warmth linked to high-charisma people.”

Marcus Welby, strict as he could be, exuded a well measured warmth, kindness and relatedness. I have speculated, for example in “Role Play”, that this warmth isn’t necessarily of our own making but emanating from the source of everything, whatever people may choose to call that.

When you get right down to it, I think healthcare providers today are too often viewed by others and increasingly also by themselves as interchangeable. That is the opposite of Charisma. Like so many times before in recent years, I’m puzzled by how everywhere else in our society people and businesses strive to stand out and to establish their constant presence, perceptions of power and warm relationships with their customers, while healthcare professionals are hiding too much behind a vail of sameness and anonymity, seemingly even creating distance and projecting a lack of warmth – almost on purpose in a misguided effort to seem professional?

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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