American Association for Physician Leadership

The Power of Hard Work, Opportunity, and Time: A Physician’s Personal Leadership Journey

Corey M. Cronrath, DO, MPH, MBA, CPE

Jan 4, 2024

Volume 11, Issue 1, Pages 19-22


The author shares his personal leadership journey as a physician, highlighting the importance of hard work, embracing opportunities, and the role of randomness in shaping our lives. Through personal anecdotes, he hopes to inspire others to believe in their potential and embrace the unpredictable nature of life’s path.

I decided to join the United States Marine Corps after graduating from high school. Filled with youthful idealism, I believed that this path would make me tough and empower me to conquer the world. Instead, reality had different plans for me.

During my time in the Marine Corps, I quickly realized that becoming an invincible force was not in the cards for me. While I may not have emerged as the superhero I had imagined, the experience gave me something far more valuable: discipline, structure, and the invaluable skill of time management.

In the rigorous environment of the Marine Corps, every minute was accounted for. I learned the importance of adhering to schedules and managing my time effectively. It was through this process that I discovered the true meaning of self-discipline and the ability to prioritize tasks efficiently. Balancing the demands of military training with personal responsibilities taught me invaluable lessons in organization and focus.

Moreover, the Marine Corps instilled in me a sense of calculated risk-taking. I learned that success often lies in stepping out of our comfort zones and taking chances. This newfound belief in myself and my abilities empowered me to push beyond my perceived limitations and embrace challenges with determination and resilience.

Through the trials and tribulations of my Marine Corps journey, I discovered that true strength is not measured solely by physical prowess but by the mental fortitude to adapt, learn, and grow. The discipline, structure, and time management skills I acquired during this period would serve as the bedrock for my future endeavors.

While my aspirations of conquering the world may have been tempered by reality, the lessons I learned in the Marine Corps continue to shape my personal and professional journey. They have taught me the importance of hard work, the value of self-belief, and the necessity of taking calculated risks to achieve greatness.

Appreciating Essentials of Success

As I ventured into new chapters of my life, whether it was pursuing higher education or navigating the complex world of medicine, I carried with me the indomitable spirit of the Marine Corps. It is through these experiences that I have come to appreciate the power of discipline, structure, time management, and self-belief as essential components of personal and professional success.

Looking back, I am grateful for the transformative impact the Marine Corps had on my life. It shaped me into a resilient individual, equipped with the skills and mindset necessary to overcome challenges and embrace the unexpected twists and turns of my leadership journey. The lessons I learned during those formative years continue to guide me, reminding me that greatness can be achieved when we work hard, take calculated risks, and have faith in others and ourselves.

Facing Obstacles

As I transitioned into the next phase of my life, I found myself returning to the realm of formal academics as a student in a community college. I am forever grateful for the support of the G.I. Bill, which enabled me to pursue higher education. Although I was uncertain about the specific path I wanted to take, I recognized the importance of education in shaping my future.

Additionally, I yearned for the camaraderie and sense of purpose that I had experienced during my time in the military. Thus, I made the decision to join the National Guard while attending college. However, I encountered a few hurdles along the way.

Having been away from traditional schooling for a while, I found myself significantly behind my peers. My ACT scores were less than stellar, and I needed to take intermediate courses to bridge the gap and catch up academically. It was a humbling experience, as I essentially had to revisit high school-level classes to build a solid educational foundation.

To add to the challenge, the skills and qualifications I had acquired during my tenure in the Marine Corps did not directly transfer to the National Guard. I had to undergo retraining to align with the requirements of my new role. Despite the setbacks, I remained determined to forge ahead on my chosen path.

Igniting My Passion

With my focus now centered on formal education, I sought a National Guard job that would provide training during the summer months, allowing me to balance my military commitments with my college coursework. It was during this search that I discovered a position that perfectly fit both my timeline and the National Guard’s needs: combat medic.

Little did I know that this decision would ignite a deep passion and calling within me for the field of medicine. As a combat medic, I witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of healthcare on individuals in their most vulnerable moments. The opportunity to alleviate suffering, offer comfort, and save lives became my driving force.

Motivated by this newfound love for medicine, inspired by the words of Albert Einstein who once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worth living,” I dedicated the next 12 years to the pursuit of knowledge and personal growth. With unwavering commitment, I earned my baccalaureate degree and set forth on the transformative journey toward medical school.

Driven by a deep sense of purpose, I understood that the true essence of my chosen path lay in making a positive impact on the lives of others. It was this guiding principle that fueled my determination and shaped my journey in medicine.

Looking back at this pivotal moment in my personal journey, I am reminded of the power of seizing opportunities and embracing unexpected paths. Through the convergence of my military background and my pursuit of education, I discovered my true passion and found my calling as a physician.

The road to medical school would undoubtedly present its own set of challenges and sacrifices, but armed with the lessons of hard work, discipline, and resilience from my earlier experiences, I embarked on this new chapter with unwavering determination.

Little did I know that this journey would shape not only my career but also my personal growth in profound ways, propelling me toward a fulfilling and impactful future as a physician leader.

Embarking on Medical School

Medical school brought forth a daunting challenge, one that would uproot the family from the safe and supported surroundings of North Dakota and transplant us into the bustling suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. With an infant son in tow, my wife and I braced ourselves for the financial hardships, the separation from our support system and loved ones, and the limited time we would have to spend with each other.

While the U.S. Army Health Professional Scholarship Program provided some much-needed reprieve, it was not a magic wand that could instantly solve all our issues. We still had to face the harsh realities of making ends meet in a new and expensive city. Determined to provide for our growing family, my wife took on a full-time job while I immersed myself in the demanding world of medical school.

The days were long, the workload was overwhelming, and the financial strain was ever-present. But in the midst of these challenges, we found solace in our unwavering commitment to each other and our shared vision of a better future. Together, we became experts at stretching every dollar, meticulously budgeting our expenses, and finding creative ways to make ends meet.

Our support system, physically distant, remained a vital lifeline throughout this tumultuous period. Despite the miles that separated us, we leaned on the emotional support of our loved ones, seeking their encouragement and guidance from afar. They served as a constant reminder that we were not alone in this journey, instilling within us the strength to persevere.

It was a delicate balancing act, one that required us to prioritize our time and make sacrifices. Date nights became a rarity, replaced by late-night study sessions and exhausted conversations about our dreams and aspirations. Our lives revolved around the pursuit of knowledge and the shared goal of achieving success.

Through it all, we clung to the belief that our sacrifices would be worthwhile, that the sleepless nights and financial hardships were merely stepping stones on the path to a brighter future. Our dedication to our family and our unwavering work ethic fueled our resolve, propelling us forward even when the weight of our circumstances threatened to hold us back.

Looking back, I am humbled by the resilience and determination my wife and I displayed during those years. The challenges we faced only served to strengthen our bond and deepen our appreciation for the opportunities that lay ahead.

It is through these experiences that I learned the true value of hard work and the importance of embracing the unknown. Life does not always unfold as planned, and sometimes it takes a leap of faith to achieve our goals. In the face of adversity, we discovered that with dedication, perseverance, and a strong support system, we could overcome even the most daunting obstacles.

Ultimately, our struggles during medical school taught us the invaluable lesson that success is not determined solely by our circumstances but by our unwavering commitment to our dreams and the willingness to work hard, even in the face of uncertainty. And it is this lesson that continues to guide me on my personal leadership journey as a physician.

Finding New Challenges

We survived the rigorous journey of medical school and found ourselves embarking on the next chapter of our careers: internal medicine residency at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. However, one thing you should know about my family is that we are fair-skinned, don’t speak Spanish fluently, and have a deep affinity for green landscapes and water. El Paso presented us with a different kind of challenge.

While the residency program itself was excellent, we struggled with the geographical and cultural differences. After completing the first year of residency, I made a decision that would change the course of my career. I offered to leave the internal medicine program and serve as a general medical officer (GMO) in Afghanistan. The Army readily accepted my request, and I was deployed to Forward Operating Base Wolverine in the southern region of the country, assuming the role of a flight surgeon for the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade.

In the challenging environment of Afghanistan, I was thrust into situations for which I had not received formal training. I had to make critical decisions with limited resources and faced numerous responsibilities. These included managing a pharmacy that stocked controlled substances, overseeing a blood program for trauma casualties, implementing public health measures such as vector control for the entire base, and making clinical decisions with minimal laboratory testing or imaging available. It was a trial by fire, where every decision carried immense weight.

During my time as a flight surgeon, I learned the art of decision-making under pressure. I discovered that not making a decision was akin to accepting failure. I had to navigate uncharted territories and rapidly adapt to new challenges. I embraced the concept of making multiple pivot or persevere decisions, knowing that sometimes the path to success required adjusting course along the way. I also internalized the 70-70-70 rule, understanding that having 70% of the information, 70% of the analysis, and being 70% sure of the decision was often sufficient to move forward.

I also discovered the fields of occupational and aerospace medicine. In this fortuitous twist of fate, I found a new path that aligned perfectly with my interests and aspirations. These fields were built upon principles of safety and preventive care, offering a unique perspective on healthcare.

As a flight surgeon, I had the privilege of being immersed in the world of aviation and working closely with pilots, aircrew, and ground personnel. This proximity provided me with invaluable insights into their work environments, the challenges they faced, and the importance of ensuring their well-being. I had the opportunity to venture into the hangars, witness the operations firsthand, and engage with the individuals who carried out critical tasks.

Redirecting My Career Trajectory

This hands-on experience granted me a deep understanding of the intricacies involved in promoting safety and preventive measures within these specialized settings. It became clear to me that my skills and passion were well-suited for developing policies that could be effectively implemented to enhance the health and safety of those working in these demanding fields.

Motivated by this newfound focus, my pursuit shifted from board certification in internal medicine to specializing in occupational and aerospace medicine. I recognized the profound impact I could make by applying my knowledge and expertise to protect and improve the health of individuals in high-risk occupations.

By redirecting my career trajectory, I aimed to become a champion of preventive medicine, advocating for the well-being of workers in various industries and ensuring their access to quality healthcare. This decision allowed me to combine my medical expertise with my desire to create meaningful change in the lives of others.

Through the field of occupational and aerospace medicine, I found a professional path that resonated deeply with my values and provided a platform to make a lasting difference. It was another example of how seemingly random occurrences can shape our lives in unexpected and profound ways.

Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, I pursued a residency in occupational and aerospace medicine. I embraced the opportunity to leverage my experiences, skills, and knowledge to develop policies and practices that prioritized the health, well-being, and safety of workers in diverse occupational settings.

Carrying Lessons Learned

After three deployments and eight years of service, the time came for me to bid farewell to the Army. It was a decision driven by my core values: God, family, and country. The demands of my military service were starting to strain my marriage and family life. With four children and living in upstate New York at the time, I knew I had to prioritize their well-being. Guided by the wise words of Roy Disney, who once said, “When values are known, decisions are easy,” I made the difficult but necessary choice to transition out of the military.

The journey thus far had shaped me into a resilient and adaptable physician leader, capable of making tough decisions and overcoming formidable challenges. As I embarked on the next phase of my career, I carried with me the lessons learned from my time in the Army — lessons of dedication, sacrifice, and the pursuit of excellence. With my values as my compass, I was prepared to continue making a meaningful impact in the lives of others, driven by a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to serving those in need.

The transition from the active Army to the civilian sector marked a new chapter in my career, and I was fortunate to find a remarkable healthcare system, Marshfield Clinic Health System, in Wisconsin. This system had a strong focus on serving rural patients who often felt abandoned by the healthcare industry. It aligned perfectly with my passion for service and provided an opportunity for me to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who needed it the most.

Marshfield Clinic Health System is a system that is committed to enriching the lives of rural populations through accessible and high-quality healthcare. They recognized the need for a physician to rebuild their Employee and Occupational Health departments, and they placed their trust in me to take on this challenge. Their belief in my abilities bolstered my physician leadership career and inspired me to lead with dedication and compassion.

Although I had experience practicing leadership as a military officer, transitioning those skills into a healthcare system presented its own set of challenges. To navigate this new environment, my first step was to seek out mentors within the organization. I was fortunate to find incredible physician leaders like Bill Melms, MD, David Simenstad, MD, Humayun Khan, MD, and Brandon Parkhurst, MD, who generously shared their time and wisdom to help me grow. Additionally, I joined the American Association for Physician Leadership, utilizing their resources, teachings, and guidance. This association not only provided valuable support, but also expanded my network of mentors from regional to national levels. To further enhance my leadership credentials, I pursued and obtained a Certified Physician Executive (CPE) credential.

Over the past four years as the service line medical director of occupational and employee health, I have gained invaluable experience and knowledge. Experience has been my greatest teacher, and I have learned immensely from the challenges and successes encountered along the way. Recognizing the importance of a comprehensive skill set, I also pursued a master’s in business administration, which has enabled me to effectively communicate and collaborate with colleagues in the business side of healthcare. It has allowed me to understand their perspectives, engage in meaningful dialogue, and contribute to the overall success of the organization.

Living the Dream

Reflecting on my journey, I consider myself to be living the American Dream. I started from humble beginnings, below the poverty line, with limited self-esteem and self-worth. Through hard work, seizing opportunities, and the passage of time, I have transformed into a physician executive who is positively impacting the lives of tens of thousands of individuals. None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of my loving wife and children, who have been my pillars of strength throughout this remarkable journey.

I have learned that anyone can succeed by adhering to a simple rule: Work hard. When combined with showing determination, seizing opportunities, and surrounding oneself with mentors and support systems, hard work has the power to turn dreams into reality. I am a testament to the transformative power of perseverance, and I am grateful for the opportunities that have come my way.

I remain committed to making a difference in the lives of others and contributing to the improvement of our healthcare system, guided by the values of service, leadership, and dedication.

Corey M. Cronrath, DO, MPH, MBA, CPE

Corey M. Cronrath, DO, MPH, MBA, CPE, is service line medical director for Marshfield Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

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The American Association for Physician Leadership has helped physicians develop their leadership skills through education, career development, thought leadership and community building.

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