Bono to women surgeons: Leadership means helping everyone live up to their potential
Navy Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency, talks to the Association of Women Surgeons meeting in Washington, D.C.
A Conversation over a kitchen table many years ago has led Vice Adm. Raquel Bono to become the Navy Medical Corps’ only woman three-star admiral and the director of the Defense Health Agency. It has also prompted Bono to find ways to help others live up to their potential, no matter their social status or sex. She said when she was a little girl, she told her father, a surgeon, she wanted to be a nurse so she could spend more time with him at the hospital where he worked long hours.
“My dad said, ‘Why don’t you want to be a doctor?’” said Bono. “I didn’t know girls could be doctors.” He said, ‘You can be anything you want.’ I grew up thinking and believing and knowing that whatever I aimed for was what I was going to achieve.”
Bono relayed that story to a meeting of the Association of Women Surgeons in Washington, D.C., Oct. 15, 2016. The gathering brought together surgeons from across the country, as Bono, who is a surgeon in her own right, was one of the key speakers on the opening day of the conference.
The admiral told the group another story of when she was a young physician, feeling left out of important conversations because, as a woman, she didn’t share the same locker room as her mostly male operating room counterparts. “My surgical colleagues were having these ‘pregame’ pep talks. That was something I knew I needed to overcome.”
Bono not only vowed to find a way to overcome that communication gap, she promised she would share what she learned and help others so they didn’t have to face those problems in the future. And she knew she couldn’t wait until she was far enough along the ladder to start reaching back and helping others up. “I didn’t have to wait until I was ‘somebody,’” she said.
Bono passed along to the group of women surgeons her philosophy of how leaders sometimes also have to push outside of their comfort zones.
“Part of leadership [is] the willingness to be able to make something different happen,” said Bono. “If you’re not feeling a little uncomfortable as a leader, then you’re probably not leaning far enough forward.”
She also shared with the group a personal text to one of her daughters about being a leader and why it’s so important to be diverse and inclusive of other people:
- Recognize others’ talents and insights and be able to give unexpected talent room to develop and flourish.
- Inspire and encourage others to contribute their talents to a shared goal.
- Set a course and future in which others can see themselves.
- Give people courage and maneuver space and “top cover” for those who are helping to make that future happen.
“People talk about whether leaders are born or made,” Bono told her daughter and the women surgeons. “Certain people are born with leadership traits. Others can develop what they don’t have. Leadership ability is an acquirable skill that some people are bestowed with naturally. Your ability to relate to people and your high emotional intelligence are probably the strongest attributes a leader can show, which at the heart of it, is leadership.”