The Three Pillars of Leadership

Caligiuri Lab Coat

Intelligence, work ethic and being nice to people.

These are the three key components of the Michael Caligiuri, MD, leadership formula. What may come as a surprise to some is the order in which the Director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) ranks these leadership qualities.

Dr. Caligiuri held up three fingers on his hand to illustrate his point, and started with the pinkie – the shortest: “Intelligence is highly overrated, it’s far less important than people think.”

The ring finger is next, a little more prominent. It represents work ethic. The third, and tallest digit, is the middle finger, which represents kindness. “The most successful leaders work hard and are nice,” he said. “I’ve met very few brilliant, lazy jerks who are great leaders … I think humility and a sense of your place in the world and being grateful for your opportunities are really important and underrated qualities.”

A lot of what Dr. Caligiuri has learned about leadership came from Clara Bloomfield, MD. She was his mentor at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo and brought Dr. Caligiuri to the OSUCCC – James when she was named director of the OSUCCC in 1997.

“She’s unstoppable and the most organized person I’ve ever met,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “Clara was my mentor and leader and provided me with one opportunity for growth after another. And, with Clara, I knew she would always have my best interests at heart and was someone I could trust.”

And with each new opportunity, Dr. Caligiuri learned that he liked the challenge of leadership. “I found that I enjoyed it and the feedback I got was that I have my faults, but I’m OK at this, and so I continued,” he said. Dr. Caligiuri took over as director of the OSUCCC in 2003 and as CEO of the James in 2008.

Providing opportunities for the people he leads is another major component of the Caligiuri leadership manual.

“I can describe leadership in one word: Selflessness,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “It’s switching from ‘it’s all about me’ to making sure your recruits, your mentees and everyone here is given enough soil so they can grow. It’s providing opportunities for them to grow. You become secondary and realize you may never become the scientist you hoped to be. But that’s the choice you make, and if you don’t make that choice you’re a failed leader.”

Electra Paskett, PhD, is one of the many top scientists Dr. Caligiuri helped recruit to the OSUCCC – James.

“When you talk with Mike, you feel like you’re the only person he’s talking to,” said Dr. Paskett, Associate Director for Population Sciences and Director of the Center for Cancer Health Equity. “He’s genuine and it comes across.”

Dr. Caligiuri advised Sameek Roychowdhury, MD, PhD, when he was a graduate student at the OSUCCC – James and later recruited him back to Columbus. “He has a vision and genuine leadership and he cares about the people who work for him and our patients, it’s authentic,” said Dr. Roychowdhury, who now works in the Deptartment of Internal Medicine, Division of Medical Oncology of the OSUCCC – James, adding that Dr. Caligiuri has provided him with a lot of opportunities. “Mike told me to expand our genetics research, to go crazy with research and beat cancer with genetics. And that’s our mission every day.”

Another component of leadership is communication. Dr. Caligiuri is adept at explaining the complexities of cancer to an audience of people without medical degrees or science backgrounds in a way that gets them excited to join his crusade to beat cancer.

“The objective isn’t to sound smart, but to make your audience feel smart,” he explained. “And the way to make them feel smart is to explain things in a way they’ll understand. And the way to make them feel stupid is to explain things in a way they can’t understand.”

This sounds simple, but there aren’t many scientists who can explain the complexities of cancer as simply and elegantly as Dr. Caligiuri.

The final chapter of his leadership book is all about passion and persistence.

“It’s all about being relentless in pursuit of your passion,” Dr. Caligiuri said.

This is the fifth story in a six-part series on Michael A. Caligiuri, MD. The series explores Dr. Caligiuri’s background, career and accomplishments leading up to being named President of the American Association for Cancer Research. Links to the other parts of the series are below.

Part 1: Reaching a Perfect Rating
Part 2: From Buffalo to Columbus
Part 3: Turning Around the OSUCCC – James
Part 4: A Day in the Life
Part 6: What's Next – Improving Upon Perfection