4 things leaders can learn about resigning from MD Anderson President Dr. Ron DePinho

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Ron A. DePinho, MD, president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, resigned from his post on March 8. In addition to submitting a formal letter of resignation, Dr. DePinho, who became the institution's fourth president on Sept. 1, 2011, also prepared an unusually forthright video explaining his choice to step down.

The move concludes a tenure wrought with financial struggles, a large layoff and an audit that brought into question Dr. DePinho's investment and management practices. 

Resigning from a top leadership role is a difficult task. Though there are many reasons one might resign, it's hard to dispel the implication that the decision resulted from shortcomings that were impossible to overcome. Dr. DePinho did not attempt to do that. Instead, he was honest, candid and sincere about his decision and took responsibility for many of the organization's difficulties. 

The manner in which Dr. DePinho resigned can serve as an example for any other leader who might find him or herself in such circumstances. Here are four key lessons on resignation from Dr. DePinho.

1. Take accountability. The tenets of a graceful resignation are the same as those of strong leadership. One of the main ones is accountability. When an organization is experiencing trouble, no one wants to hear excuses or see a leader point fingers of blame at others. Instead, a mark of true leadership — even within a resignation — is having the courage to take responsibility for the organization's shortcomings.

While still touting the accomplishments MD Anderson made while he was at the helm, Dr. DePinho states in his address, "I could have done a better job administratively, a better job listening, a better job communicating. Forgive me for my shortcomings."

2. Be honest. Leaders are not infallible — they are human, and like all other humans, they're not perfect. It's important to be honest and straightforward about this and not try to deny weaknesses.

In addition to admitting where he could have done a better job as a leader, Dr. DePinho is honest about personal challenges in his life, such as the loss of his "hero" — his father — to colon cancer.

Dr. DePinho doesn't bring up this personal information as an excuse; instead, he suggests the tragedy fortified his commitment to defeat cancer. He said his father's suffering "ignited and defined the intensity of my fight" against cancer, and added, "Every life lost reminds me of my father and instills an even greater sense of urgency and, admittedly, anger. I simply hate cancer."

Being honest and showing authentic emotion is not a signal of weakness. To the contrary, it is courageous and also makes one more relatable to the people he or she is addressing.

3. Have gratitude. The ability to express genuine gratitude amid negative circumstances does not go unnoticed. "Being president of MD Anderson is an honor I will carry with me for the rest of my life," Dr. DePinho said in the video.

He also demonstrates pride in the many achievements of his staff, including enhancing MD Anderson's research competitiveness, elevating the reputation of its graduate school program, expanding clinical trials, transforming its translational research infrastructure and launching MD Anderson's Cancer Moon Shots Program, among other successes. 

4. Demonstrate continued commitment to the mission. Dr. DePinho's choice to resign is grounded in his belief that the organization needs a new leader to achieve its goals and live out its mission. He says a new president will help MD Anderson "forge ahead on its mission of compassionate care for patients and the discovery of scientific advances that, I believe, lie at the heart of ultimately defeating cancer." His resignation doesn't sever his commitment to the organization — it reinforces it.

Dr. DePinho plans to continue to fight cancer by returning to his "passion of conducting translational science and helping others doing great science — to drive ideas to clinical impact that matter for patients."

"I truly believe that this decision will allow me to better serve cancer patients here, at MD Anderson, and nationally," he said.       

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