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Breaking Glass Ceilings: Leading Through Adversity

Written by: Julie Ann Freischlag, MD, FACS, FRCEd (hon), DFSVS
Published on: Aug 26, 2021
This article is published in the 2021 edition of the
Women in Medicine Summit Compendium
Click here to find out more and read the other articles

By Julie Ann Freischlag, MD, FACS, FRCEd (hon), DFSVS

In order to break your own glass ceiling, you need to own your opportunities. Sometimes opportunity is handed to you; at other times, you have to pursue it. If you fail at achieving one opportunity, you need to realize that you can pivot and try for another one.

Remember when one door closes, another door opens. You need not beat down the door. Do not go through a window – you could injure yourself!

Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.

Oprah Winfrey

Think of challenges as your opportunities. Challenges can inspire you to be creative and flexible. And flexibility – including the ability to accept critical feedback and adjust your planning – is a key competency for leadership. In fact, flexibility, transparency and excellent communication skills are all important when it comes to being the best leader you can be.

One way to achieve your goals is to build a team. Putting a team together that is inclusive of gender, race, age, background and interests can improve the quality of the decisions that are made. A diverse team – I call it a mosaic – also teaches you many things as a leader.

Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

What did I learn today? How did I help other people? What was my overall impact?

Those three questions can help you formulate your plan. To stay true to what guides you, ask yourself those questions frequently – sometimes I find myself turning to them almost every day! Taking time to consider the answers will keep you motivated, as you will appreciate the richness of your environment even more.

When you're moving in the positive, your destination is the brightest star.

Stevie Wonder

You need to find your own way. You can do that by using self-reflection and talking with others. A coach may be helpful, as well. Taking a leadership course, reading leadership books or listening to podcasts about leadership can also be motivating.

Follow your fear.

Tina Fey

And don’t forget to celebrate your victories. If you focus only on your failures, your energy to go forward will be less.

True heroes are made of hard work and integrity.

Hope Solo, World Cup soccer champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist

Always ask yourself and others: “How are you doing? Are you on a path to achieve our team goals this year and your career goals beyond that?"

Is there anything more I can be doing to help you?”

Michael Tarnoff, MD (2020)

And always remember your why. Why do you come to work? What gives you joy? What gives you purpose?

Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the ‘me’ for ‘we.’

Phil Jackson, former NBA coach

The key to breaking your own personal glass ceiling is to lead from within!


Julie A. FreischlagJulie Ann Freischlag, MD, FACS, FRCEd (hon), DFSVS

Chief Executive Officer of Wake Forest Baptist Health, Dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine and Chief Academic Officer of Atrium Health Enterprise. Consistently ranked among the nation’s top 50 medical centers, Wake Forest Baptist includes a growing, multi-hospital health system and physician network, the state-of-the-art and highly competitive Wake Forest School of Medicine and the school’s technology transfer and commercialization arm, Wake Forest Innovations. Currently, Freischlag is President-elect for the American College of Surgeons. She also serves on the Association for American Medical Colleges Board of Directors, National Institute of Health Clinical Center Research Hospital Board, Aga Khan University Board of Trustees, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Advisory Board, the University of Illinois Health Advisory Board and the American Hospital Association Changing Workforce Task Force.

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