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American Association for Physician Leadership
American Association for Physician Leadership

Right-Side, Left-Side, Bi-Directional — Which Is Best?

by Peter B. Angood, MD, FRCS(C), FACS, MCCM, FAAPL(Hon)

March 8, 2023


Leadership is markedly different from medical practice, and there remains a paucity of exposure to leadership skill development for physicians.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, while the rational mind is a faithful servant.”

— Einstein

I am right-handed for most activities, have ambidextrous talent for a few athletic activities, and often use my left hand for simpler tasks when it is easier to use than my dominant right. The dominance of one hand over the other in daily activities, however, is far different when we consider how our brains process and direct us during our routine professional activities.

I have lived a surgeon’s life with strong left-brain dominance in my thinking and processing. Subsequently, I recognize how it can be problematic for me, relatively speaking, to foster a creative outlet when considering avocations. To this day, I must still ask someone for clarification on what the right side of the brain does when compared to the brain’s left side. You would think having spent numerous years doing trauma surgery and looking after far too many traumatic brain injury patients that I might be able to remember…

Perhaps I should have my first tattoo look like this?

From .

Relatedly, Doc Martin, a popular British-based television series, follows the clinical brilliance of a surly, unemotional, and self-centered Dr. Martin Ellingham. Having developed hemophobia (fear of blood) when he starts to identify patients as humans rather than surgical cases, Ellingham, formerly an exceptionally hotshot surgeon in London, is forced to change careers, and he relocates to a small seaside town in Cornwall, UK.

As a demoted urban surgeon now practicing as a rural general practitioner, he clashes with the village’s quirky inhabitants, primarily because of his own highly awkward social behaviors, which seem to place him on the autism spectrum, having Asperger’s syndrome, or having animotophobia (fear of emotions).

With my fairly rudimentary understanding of how the brain’s two hemispheres function together, I enjoyed the series for its profiles of the extreme left-sided behavioral dominance of Ellingham, who has minimal counter-acting right-sided influences. Aside from the accurately portrayed clinical cases in the series, it is an intriguing medical drama from the perspectives of human behavior and observations on life.

The Art of Medicine and Leadership

So, what has all this to do with leadership? Leadership is markedly different from medical practice, and there remains a paucity of exposure to leadership skill development for physicians.

Medical training is designed to provide deep levels of comprehension on the many facets of pathological conditions and how best to treat them for optimal patient outcomes. This requires high levels of detail and pattern recognition, as well as critical analysis and decision-making based upon algorithmic formulae, a significant set of left-sided brain activities.

Successful leadership, on the other hand, often, but not always, requires a different intellectual path of learning and knowledge processing which, at times, relies heavily upon intuition, imagination, and strong inter-personal skills…a significant set of right-sided brain activities.

Importantly, however, there is an “artful” component for both medicine and leadership whereby one must be attuned far more to the needs of others and their environments than those needs for oneself.

In the scientifically sound book The Master and His Emissary, British psychiatrist and philosopher Ian McGilchrist examines the typical manner of thinking between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Each hemisphere provides radically different perceptions of the world.

Typically, the left brain perceives the world through details, reasoning, critical thinking, and logic, while the right brain is best with creative, intuitive, and imaginative perception. Right-hemisphere thinking, with its openness to experience, plays the more important part and is a better guide to reality than the narrowly viewed, rules-based way the left hemisphere perceives the world.

McGilchrist suggests, “We have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us.” He suggests that to understand ourselves and the world, “we need science and intuition, together with reason and imagination....”

Meaningful, rigorous science and reason, where both hemispheres’ collective faculties are engaged, is important for a refined understanding of brain function and for moving forward in both clinical practice and physician leadership. Each of our brain’s hemispheres pays attention to the world in different ways.

When they work together, however, we perceive the whole picture of what surrounds us. Our brains are involved in the making and interpretation of our entire lived experience, thus it is important to use our brain’s collective faculties to perceive our world and to view our lives and the lives of our patients or fellow leaders with fresh understanding.

Our holistic reality is ultimately based on the different kinds of attention we utilize from our left brain, our right brain, and when both hemispheres are recognized as working together, according to Ida M. Covi, depth psychologist. So, by using different types of attention — right, left, bi-directional — we better perceive various things and, often, the more beautiful and mysterious aspects of our everyday reality.

Embracing Our Profession

The medical profession is still viewed as a leadership profession, not only by our industry, but also by general society; therefore, as physician leaders, we must embrace the complexities of our industry. We must embrace the reality we chose when transitioning to this profession, and we can choose to embrace the opportunities when our individual and collective energies create the positive transformation required by our industry.

Further maximizing our inherent skills and aptitudes for clinical decision-making and leadership ability, while paying closer attention to the evolving science of neurobiology, neurophysiology, and psychiatry (even philosophy) can only make the care of patients better and improve the environments where we all work and recreate with others.

Remember, leading and helping create significant positive change is our overall intent as physicians. AAPL focuses on maximizing the potential of physician-led, interprofessional leadership to create personal and organizational transformation that benefits patient outcomes, improves workforce wellness, and refines the delivery of healthcare internationally.

We must all continue to seek deeper levels of professional and personal development and to recognize ways we can each generate constructive influence for one another at all levels. As physician leaders, let us become more engaged, stay engaged, and help others to become engaged. Exploring and creating the opportunities for broader levels of positive transformation in healthcare is within our reach — individually and collectively.

Peter B. Angood, MD, FRCS(C), FACS, MCCM, FAAPL(Hon)

Peter Angood, MD, is the chief executive officer and president of the American Association for Physician Leadership. Formerly, Dr. Angood was the inaugural chief patient safety officer for The Joint Commission and senior team leader for the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Patient Safety Solutions. He was also senior adviser for patient safety to the National Quality Forum and National Priorities Partnership and the former chief medical officer with the Patient Safety Organization of GE Healthcare.

With his academic trauma surgery practice experience ranging from the McGill University hospital system in Canada to the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Angood completed his formal academic career as a full professor of surgery, anesthesia and emergency medicine. A fellow in the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, the American College of Surgeons and the American College of Critical Care Medicine, Dr. Angood is an author in more than 200 publications and a past president for the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

For over 45 years.

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

The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


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