Eight-year-old Tricia Elliott walked into her home after school and told her parents what had happened. A group of middle school boys had just called her the “N” word, she told them, and she wasn’t sure what to make of it – or what to do if it happened again.
“And my mom said, ‘What you’re going to do is you’re going to hold your head up high, and you’re going to walk right on by,’” Elliott recalled during a recent on-stage conversation with Stephen P. Bogdewic, PhD.
Bogdewic was the first executive vice dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine and founder of its Faculty Affairs and Professional Development office. Now retired, the school hosts an annual program in his honor, the Stephen P. Bogdewic Lectureship in Medical Leadership. Elliott was the guest of honor for the 2023 program held last week.
Now an accomplished leader and physician, Tricia C. Elliott, MD, FAAFP, serves as senior vice president of academic and research affairs and chief academic officer of JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, Texas. She has held numerous leadership roles over the course of her career.
In a deeply personal conversation between two longtime friends and former colleagues, Bogdewic led Elliott through memories of important milestones in her life and career. Being taunted by those middle-school boys on her way home from school was one of them.
“When I look back and reflect on my life, I realize that was a moment in time where I could have just said, ‘Okay,’ and internalized it,” she said. “But it was also this time to say, ‘How will I respond?’”
At the time, fourth-grader Elliott’s family had recently moved to Minnesota shortly after emigrating from Jamaica to the United States. She was the single Black person in her school. When you’re faced with struggles like personal attacks, she said, “How do you hold your head up high, walk on by? How do you get to know yourself, stand in your space, be who you are – and proud of who you are?”
“You were 8, 8-and-a-half,” said Bogdewic. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Just hold your head up high,’ but where did you get the courage to do this?”
“I really commend my parents for instilling that courage and always saying that, ‘You know, it’s okay to be who you are and to have a voice,’” Elliott replied.
These wise words would follow Elliott throughout her career.
Later, an opportunity to meet the late poet Gwendolyn Brooks during Elliott’s time at Rice University reinforced this guiding principle. After giving Elliott autographed personal copies of the books she had written, Brooks looked at Elliott, “And she said, ‘I want you to have these books and remember who you are, and remember your voice, and that words matter and your voice matters,’” said Elliott. “That was a life-changing moment for me.”
Embrace all of who you are — and who everyone else is, too.
Being who you are is only part of the equation; it’s important to recognize others for who they are, as well. Being able to see oneself with others as a collective community opens a new perspective on diversity and power, she said.
She views the diversity of teams and individuals as powerful capital that can be leveraged for many impactful initiatives. She encouraged IU School of Medicine community members to think about the many teams in which they participate, embrace and value the people within those teams as individuals and bring that diversity to the forefront of the work they do. “It provides such amazing power – and shared power – to move us forward in that collective leadership model,” she said.
Success isn’t a one-person endeavor.
Valuing one another is one key emphasis in Elliott’s approach to leadership. Working together and building relationships are others. She pointed to another milestone that reinforced the importance of relationship-building throughout her career.
Faced with the daunting challenge of taking on a new role that thrust her to the front of an effort to save a residency program that was hit during a special site visit with 19 citations and a threat of impending closure, Elliott focused on building relationships with colleagues across disciplines and specialties. She realized that if they were going to be successful, everyone would need to be successful. They were entirely reliant on one another.
A year later, they passed the next site visit with zero citations.
The relationships she built were half the reason for her team’s success. The other half? She had felt prepared to step into the leadership role that allowed her to face this challenge. That preparation came through taking advantage of professional development opportunities and encountering leaders along her career path who saw her potential.
“Thankfully, I had faculty and mentors who saw something in me,” Elliott said. “Leaders are not born; they’re developed. And I do believe that you have to have people help you develop those leadership skills along the way.”
Your voice matters.
Elliott recalled a similar experience of being supported, another milestone in her life journey that had an impact on her professionally.
Elliott spoke about a middle-school English teacher who recognized her “quirks” and encouraged her to be herself, both in her life and in her writing. She thrived under that teacher’s guidance and looks back with a distinct feeling of being seen. Because she felt seen and secure in who she was, she found strength to be herself and use her voice.
Later, after the residency program she worked so hard to save closed due to lack of funding, she began using her voice to advocate for her work, sharing her passion for her role as a physician and clinician, policies that affect health care and the need for better funding for graduate medical education.
“It’s just important how you use your voice,” she said. Being an advocate is a vital role for all physicians, and Elliott believes building skills in advocacy should be part of the medical education curriculum. “It’s not just legislative advocacy. You’re doing community advocacy…and we’re advocating for our patients every day. We’re doing a lot of work around health-related social needs, non-medical drivers of health. We’re the ones helping our patients navigate this health system every single day. We’re advocates!”
The healing starts by being present.
Speaking up is key – but showing up is just as important, said Elliott.
While recalling a final milestone moment, Elliott told a story about crossing paths with a beloved patient at a performance of the Houston Symphony. The 90-something-year-old patient, Elliott said, asked her to sit down. “And she said, ‘Look, it wasn’t about the medicines. It wasn’t about any of that.’ She said, ‘The connection would start from the moment you walked in the room. … The healing would start from you just being there.’ And that has stuck with me ever since.”
It’s about people.That patient reinforced Elliott’s belief that it is important to be seen. And Elliott understands that being present – as a clinician, as a physician, as a leader, as a human – is necessary if she is going to know herself well enough to be able to know others.
“I always say, it’s about people. Never forget it,” she said. “It’s about people and their stories and who they are and just starting with that. That opportunity to be in the moment with a person is so important.” It’s a skill she uses with her team members and patients alike.
“I try to meet people where they are,” she said. She checks in with her teammates, asks how they’re doing and wants to hear about what’s going on in their work and lives. She also helps them realize that bad things are going to happen, and the key is to move forward and learn from the experiences.
“I think you’ve got to realize that you’re going to have amazing wins, and you’re going to have some failures,” she said. “But you can’t sit in it, right? And you can’t take it personally. This, too, shall pass … but you’ve got to learn from it.”
It’s important to find ways to laugh, too, when it’s appropriate, she said.
“Yeah,” replied Bogdewic. Leadership “is not all serious. If it is, you’re missing something.”