Uniting Story with Strategy: Relational Leadership Development at the Primary Care Progress Leadership Summit

I arrived a few minutes late to the 5th annual Gregg Stracks Primary Care Progress Leadership Summit in Cambridge, MA on a humid Saturday morning this past August expecting to sneak into the back and slide into a seat.

I stepped through the glass door to the general meeting area and was immediately taken aback by the sound of blaring trombones and the sight of energized dance moves from the Primary Care Progress staff. The conference participants were standing, clapping, and laughing; some were even dancing. It was clear that the Primary Care Progress Leadership Summit wasn’t a typical conference.

Primary Care Progress (PCP) is a national nonprofit that works to transform primary care through the development of the next generation of primary care leaders. The organization serves as a resource and training center for the more than 50 chapters it has established throughout the country at health professions schools. At Harvard Medical School, the Center for Primary Care’s Student Leadership Committee (SLC) is a PCP chapter.

During an intensive, two-day training, one concept stood out: relational leadership.

As healthcare providers, researchers, and policy advocates, the PCP team knows that effective leadership requires well-honed technical skills. But they have also learned from experience in the field that these technical skills must be paired with relational skills. PCP describes relational leadership as, “a new approach to change making that places just as much emphasis on the ‘who’ as the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.” The skill-building sessions at the summit were designed to delve further into what relational leadership means at the level of self, relationships, and teams.

Self-Awareness and Storytelling

Each session at the summit began with a story. Steph Nothelle, a geriatrics fellow at Johns Hopkins, began by telling us about a time during her chief resident year when, distracted and rushed, she responded dismissively to the concerns of an intern. The intern left the conversation without receiving the support she sought.

Steph’s failure to recognize her own emotions led to a breakdown in her leadership. She led a discussion in which we generated questions we can ask ourselves to improve our self-awareness. Steph highlighted that awareness of emotions can help to ensure that impact matches intentions.

This emphasis on storytelling and personal experience is woven throughout PCP’s work. In Andrew Morris-Singer’s personal narrative, he described what he learned about relational leadership from his late mentor Gregg Stracks, after whom the summit is named. Andrew, the founder of PCP, described how as an overworked, tired resident he avoided engaging with the emotions of his teammates, “Get done. Get out. Keep the emotions in. That was my game plan for surviving ward time.” Gregg Stracks changed this.

“Thanks to Gregg, we now see that when we bring people together to fix a difficult problem, we must spend as much time eliciting emotional responses to the issue as we do logical responses. This gives us the best chance of creating and sustaining a new team that can solve the problem. The head steers us, but the heart is the engine.”

Storytelling is important for developing our sense of selves, as well as for forming relationships. Mike Mattiucci, a student at University of Rochester School of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health, and Dave Fleischer, a leadership trainer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, built on what we learned about self-awareness, vulnerability, and storytelling during a session on conducting “one-on-ones.” A one-on-one is a conversation one person initiates with another she thinks might be interested in joining her project. One-on-ones are designed to find common ground and shared values and require, at their essence, sharing stories.

Putting it into Practice

Time was dedicated at the conference for us to practice telling our stories and conducting one-on-ones in breakout groups. By telling our stories of personal challenges, we experienced first-hand the power of embracing vulnerability and finding shared values.

In another breakout activity, we each took a turn at leading a segment of a mock meeting. One of the most valuable components of this mock meeting was establishing group norms. Group norms focus on the relational, rather than technical, components of team dynamics. When groups establish and practice norms together, meetings can be safe spaces for members to try out ideas, respectfully disagree with one another, and embrace vulnerability.

Lessons for the Future

I left the Primary Care Progress Leadership Summit grateful, inspired, and feeling that I was part of a movement bigger than myself. I hadn’t just learned about relational leadership—I had experienced it.

Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly that, “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” Few spaces in health care view openness around emotions and values as critical for transformation; the Gregg Stracks Leadership Summit is one of them.

As members of the Center’s SLC, we strive to be a space where students can be themselves, take risks, strive, fumble, and try again. Our community is one of shared values that sustain us. After the PCP Summit, I’ve returned to the SLC and our work in primary care transformation with renewed energy and a deeper sense of the value of our work. In addition to our numerous committee goals for this year, we have another equally important project: continuing to grow and nourish ourselves and our community. That is where change begins.


Colleen Farrell is a fourth year HMS student and co-leader of the SLC Communications and Narrative Medicine Team.