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The essentials of effective leadership

by Louis W. Sullivan, M.D. One Comment
Louis Sullivan speaking

Louis Sullivan addresses attendees at the inauguration ceremony of DMU President Angela Walker Franklin, Ph.D. For inaugural coverage, photos and more, see www.dmu.edu/photos/inauguration-of-president-franklin


Editor’s note: Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., was a featured speaker in the DMU┬áStudent Leadership Symposium on Sept. 22; below are excerpts from his comments. He also spoke at the Sept. 24 inauguration of Angela Walker Franklin, Ph.D., as the University’s 15th president. She considers him a mentor and friend.

I grew up in Blakely, GA, where my father established the first black funeral home and a chapter of the NAACP, with its annual Emancipation Day on Jan. 1. I had role models all along in my father and mother. She was a schoolteacher and administrator, but she never worked in Blakely because of white resentment over my father’s activism. My parents were committed to providing me with the best education I could get. I owe a lot to those early influences…

There are several essential values of successful leaders. The first is honesty. Good leaders have integrity. They generate trust and create an environment of respect.

Leaders must have excellence in some area of knowledge or skills, but they also transcend their specific discipline. They have the ability to solve problems, propose solutions and inspire others to work on those problems. They have the willingness to share knowledge and serve as a mentor.

Years ago, I learned from a seasoned leader that you gain power by giving it away. The more you empower people, the more power you have. You gain multiple centers of power working together with people who want to work with you.

Good leaders have a clear vision of where they want to take the organization. They have the ability to see how things are, but also the ability to see how they should be. They have an insatiable curiosity and the ability to recognize and adapt to new realities. They must have the courage to work to make things better and make their vision come true. They have a focus and are clear about their goals. They must possess great determination and the ability to weather criticism and skepticism, so they are not deterred by setbacks. They have the persistence to find their way over, through and around obstacles.

Effective leaders have a team-building ability and the ability to recognize and use the talents of others. They have a strong commitment to action, the ability to plan well and then to execute the plan. They have to communicate efficiently and motivate others to act.

I attended Morehouse College during the presidency of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who served in that role for 27 years. He instructed us to commit ourselves to a level of excellence so that no man living, dead or yet to be will question whether someone else could have done the job better. I challenge each of you to commit to that level of excellence so that you can be leaders for the 21st century, capable of adding value and significance to the lives of others and to your institutions.


A former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Seton Hall College of Medicine and Boston University, Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., became the founding dean and director of the Medical Education Program at Morehouse College in 1975. In 1978, the program became the School of Medicine at Morehouse and later became the independent Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), with Sullivan as dean and president.

In 1989, Sullivan left MSM to accept an appointment by President George H.W. Bush to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His many efforts to improve the health of Americans included the introduction of a new and improved FDA food label; the release of Healthy People 2000, a guide for improved health promotion and disease prevention; education for the public about the health dangers of tobacco use; and creation of a $100 million minority male health and injury prevention initiative. He returned to MSM in 1993 as its president.

The recipient of more than 55 honorary degrees and a past and former member of many corporate boards, Sullivan is chairman of the Washington, DC-based Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions. The organization was established in 2005 to raise awareness of the importance and value of achieving racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions; disseminate information about “best practices” and resources that enhance diversity; and stimulate academic programs in the health professions to create new or more effectively implement existing diversity initiatives.

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