STORIES FROM OUR CCPES: Leadership: the evolving journey

Margaret Steele, MD


Editor’s note: We asked CSPL members who have qualified as Canadian Certified Physician Leaders to tell us something about their “path” to leadership: what inspired them, how they succeeded, what they’ve learned. We hope their thoughts help you in your similar journey.


Reflecting on my leadership journey, I realize that, like so many others, I did not set out to be a leader, let alone the dean of a Canadian medical school. How did I evolve into a leader? Mentorship and sponsorship have been instrumental to my career.


As a medical student, I was a bit intimidated by being in a class full of intelligent people, many of whom had parents who were physicians, whereas I came from a hard-working, middle-class family. Along with one of my classmates, I became co-chair of the mentorship program, as I recognized that I needed to understand the world of medicine and how I was going to become a professional. This was my first leadership role in medicine. Unfortunately two of my mentors had their own challenges, one ended up taking their life and the other had to change their scope of practice.


After these experiences where I was matched to a mentor, I decided to seek out a mentor on my own. I met Dr. Sandra Fisman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who became not only the chair/chief of child and adolescent psychiatry but also the chair/chief of the Department of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University. Little did I know that Dr. Fisman would play an instrumental role, not only in my career choice, but also as a leader.


Dr. Fisman nominated me to sit on the Board of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (CACAP). This expanded my network as well as providing me with an opportunity to learn about leadership in a professional organization. I was also nominated to sit on the Council of the Ontario Psychiatric Association (OPA) and the Section of Psychiatry in the Ontario Medical Association. I slowly progressed to become president of the OPA and then of the CACAP. I learned a tremendous amount by being involved in professional organizations. I participated actively, reading minutes, asking questions, advocating for child and adolescent psychiatry, leading initiatives. Through these experiences, I gained the respect of my peers, community stakeholders, and other health professionals.


My message to my students and colleagues has been: engage in things you are passionate about, have some fun, and, ultimately, make a difference for people.


The second significant mentor in my leadership career was Dr. Carol Herbert, who was dean of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Dr. Fisman let Dr. Herbert know that I had some leadership skills, and Dr. Herbert invited me to participate in some school-wide programs, such as a Harvard Macy Medical Education Leadership program.


Dr. Herbert then nominated me for the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Through this program, I had monthly mentorship meetings with Dr. Herbert, and she introduced me to other leaders in the faculty of medicine, the greater university, and hospitals. She encouraged me to “think big,” so I set my goal to be dean of a Canadian medical school. Eight years later I realized this goal, becoming the first female dean of the faculty of medicine at Memorial University.


Often, women leaders have not had female mentors. I have been incredibly fortunate to have two key women mentors in addition to several male mentors. They have all encouraged me, provided guidance on leadership questions, and opened doors for me. I hope that I will carry on their legacy of mentorship. I have tried to mentor students, faculty members, and other professionals so that they can achieve things that they never thought they could.


Having strong women leaders in academic medicine, hospitals, professional organizations, and other aspects of health care is important, so that they can contribute to the evolution and transformation of health care. With women making up more than 50% of medical school graduates, but fewer than 20% of senior administrators in academic medicine or health care, it is essential that we senior leaders provide mentorship and opportunities for our young women aspiring leaders. Women leaders can raise the profile for research into gender differences in diseases and health care services. It is important for women leaders to be role models for medical students and physicians to look at a variety of health care leadership roles.


As the dean of the faculty of medicine at Memorial University, I have continued my interest in mentorship. I have struck a mentorship working group led by the vice dean, Dr. Cathy Vardy, to develop the culture of mentorship in our faculty.



Margaret Steele, MD, CCPE, is dean of medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland St. John’s.


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