The Army put him on a path from the infantry to medical school to a 24-year career as a physician leader.
Greg Jolissaint was just 17 when he entered the family business — not medicine, but the military — joining the ROTC as a freshman at Louisiana State University, where he earned a degree in zoology. A year later, he completed U.S. Army Airborne School, and, by the time he was 21, he was commissioned as a lieutenant at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Jolissaint’s father was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force, serving for 28 years and flying 48 bombing missions during World War II and Vietnam. It was a tough act to follow, but Jolissaint and his brothers, John Jr. and Stephen, all followed their father into the military — but not as pilots, because each needed eyeglasses by the sixth grade.
“Serving in the military was the ‘family business’ for the Jolissaint family,” Jolissaint says, “so I chose to continue the tradition and pursue a leadership and operational medicine career in the U.S. Army.”
For Jolissaint, MD, MS, CPE, FAAPL, the Army put him on a path to physician leadership — from the infantry to medical school to a 24-year career (and the rank of colonel) as physician leader. Most recently, that now includes his election as board chair of the American Association for Physician Leadership.
His current job, as vice president of military and veterans health for Trinity Health in Silver Spring, Maryland, was preceded by tenure as CMO for General Dynamics and CMO and chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jolissaint says two lessons stand out in his growth as a physician leader.
“The first is to be willing to step out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Most of the problems requiring physician leadership intervention are not clinical in nature, so clinical analysis skills are not particularly helpful in solving these problems. Some people are born with 'soft skills' — the ability to effectively listen, communicate, negotiate, manage conflict and generate consensus — while others require soft-skills training to become comfortable with these critical leadership tools for success.
“And that leads to lesson No. 2: All leaders, including physician leaders, require leader development.”
As he begins his yearlong tenure as AAPL’s board chair, we asked him to talk about his experience as a physician leader, and how he hopes to apply that to his vision and expectations for the association.
Q You’ve been a member of the association for 10 years, including the past three as a member of the board. What first drew you to the association, how has it contributed to your development as a physician leader, and how do you expect that experience to influence your role as board chair?
A After 26 years of serving as an active-duty Army officer, I found myself wondering what I was going to do when I could no longer wear a military uniform. Although I was an accomplished Army officer, clinician, physician leader and mentor, I had very few leadership credentials recognizable outside of the military. After conducting research, I began pursuing Certified Physician Executive credentials. The CPE training was amazing and created a lot of “Gee, I wish someone would have shared this information with me 20 years ago” moments — but I loved it. After completing my CPE capstone, I continued consuming courses [through the association] and attending live events.
[It] became my professional organization, and, wanting to help bring the AAPL to the next level of excellence, I pursued and was selected to be an AAPL board member. As the board chair, I will use my past to, hopefully, create conditions that help physicians and organizations understand that leadership development is a lifelong process that should begin during professional training.
Q Given your tenure, you’ve certainly witnessed association changes over the past decade. What are the most important changes, and how do you think they enhance the learning opportunities for today’s prospective and developing physician leaders?
A Transitioning from a “college” to an “association” [as AAPL did, changing its name in 2014 from the American College of Physician Executives] is probably the most significant change that occurred over the past decade because:
- It allowed AAPL to be more inclusive in leader development, because all clinical leaders deserve to be leader-developed.
- It allowed us to diversify our training outside of the CPE/master's degree programs (the creation of the CMO Academy and the CEO Academy are two key examples).
- And it allowed us to make a larger impact on the future of health care, because we continue to train current and future physician leaders.
Our focus on expanding AAPL educational activities into distance-learning events and on-site organizational events is also critical to our ability to reach more clinical leaders, and to reach them in a way that promotes their learning and ability to participate.
Q What do you see as the association’s primary objectives over the next year, and what accomplishments would make your year as board chair a success?
A First, we should expand our impact through affiliations with other nationally recognized organizations who are willing to partner with us to train and develop current and future clinical leaders. Second, we should expand our outreach to nonphysician organizations’ members — medical schools, nursing schools, postgraduate and allied professional schools, etc. — who are willing to partner with AAPL to train their members. And finally, we should fully embrace our “seasoned physician leaders” who have so much to contribute during conferences, symposiums and thought leadership forums.
Q The health care industry faces myriad challenges, including burnout and retention issues and a predicted massive shortfall of physicians — in excess of 100,000 — over the next 12 years. What do you envision as long-term goals for the association in preparing future physician leaders to meet such challenges?
A Medicine is a team sport — and every team member has a specific role to perform in the delivery of high-quality, safe, compassionate, effective, efficient and affordable health care. Teams have formal and informal leaders — and both should be used to accomplish the mission. As such, our long-term goals should include teaching physician leaders how to “share the burden of leadership” and how to “build the bench” for the future. Delegation of responsibilities and authorities is an important skill to preventing burnout for leaders; and learning to identify future leaders is critical to the successful future of our industry — and every organization within our industry.
Q What can the association do to ensure there isn’t a corresponding lack of physician leaders to address future challenges? How can more quality candidates be attracted to the C-suite?
A Our first step is to convince them that leadership development begins long before assignment to the C-suite. Clinic chiefs, service chiefs, program chiefs, department chiefs, etc., are all filling leadership positions that require effective leaders for maximum success and mission accomplishment. Leaders at every level require leadership development, and leaders should not be required to “figure it out” on their own.
Our second step is to ensure the AAPL is postured and influential in molding the future — through policy development, political outreach and engagement, active participation in boards, committees, advisory panels, and through creating a culture that embraces identifying and developing future clinical leaders.
Andy Smith is a senior editor with the American Association for Physician Leadership.