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  • The CNS Leadership Institute:
    Empowering Neurosurgical Leaders to Influence Change

    Brian V. Nahed, MD,
    Lola B. Chambless, MD,
    Maryam Rahman, MD, 
    Ellen L. Air, MD, PhD

     From our first Annual Meeting in 1951, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons has been dedicated to helping young neurosurgeons build and advance their careers. Throughout our history, the CNS has built a reputation for identifying and fostering leaders in the field, and as the field has evolved, we remain committed to helping our members adapt and lead through change.

    In late 2015, a working group of CNS officers, volunteers, and staff sat down with a small leadership team from Medtronic to discuss the evolution of neurosurgical practice and brainstorm ways we could more effectively help our members succeed in the future. Common themes emerged as central to both organizations’ strategic focus—a shift toward multi-disciplinary teams, the changing dynamics of healthcare finance, and a need for neurosurgeons to step up and lead in neuroscience centers and across hospital administration. Both organizations recognized that the modern healthcare environment required more of a neurosurgeon than clinical expertise and surgical skill, and over the proceeding months, the CNS Leadership in Healthcare Course was developed to empower junior attending neurosurgeons with the information and skills needed to shape their own careers and lead their departments, groups, hospitals, and health systems.

    The pilot course kicked off May 14, 2016, in Rosemont, Illinois with a cohort of 14 junior attending neurosurgeons. The course relied on a unique mix of healthcare finance and business acumen along with soft skills like building influence, communication, and presentation skills. It was designed to help surgeons understand and communicate across all levels of the organization to more effectively lead teams and advance their projects. This unique curriculum and our intense focus on the neurosurgical perspective and experience set our intensive weekend course apart from other physician leadership programs. It was immediately apparent, both in the feedback received from this pilot course cohort and from the tremendous accomplishments of the Leadership fellows pursuing their individual programs back at their home institutions—that this unique formula worked.

    Dr. Joseph Chang addresses a group of CNS Leadership Fellows at a 2019 Course.

    Over the course of the following three years, the program was enhanced and expanded to include a second live course—the Vanguard CNS Leadership in Healthcare course, designed for surgeons between five and 15 years into practice who have transitioned into or are preparing for formalized leadership roles in their organizations. This more advanced offering provides a deeper dive into the finances of neuroscience service lines and helps neurosurgical leaders to bridge the clinical, operational, and financial picture and drive the neuroscience service line strategy for the health system. The curriculum explores different physician payment models to help leaders understand how each model shapes care decisions, costs and outcomes. Vanguard leadership fellows also learn essential negotiation skills and study several advanced leadership models to further develop their authentic leadership styles.

    Participants in the Vanguard Leadership in Healthcare course participate in a teamwork and communication exercise.

    In 2019, these two courses were incorporated into the CNS Leadership Institute, a comprehensive program designed to offer educational content, leadership skills training and practical leadership experiences to aspiring and emerging neurosurgical leaders throughout their careers. A series of webinars has been developed on leadership fundamentals, with new webinar content in development. Additionally, a four-hour leadership training block was created for neurosurgeons transitioning into practice, and was incorporated into the CNS’ new Career Guide course.

    Earlier this year, as hospitals across the US prepared for a rush of COVID-19 cases, the CNS Leadership Institute underwent yet another evolution as our cherished live courses were cancelled and the team set to work building a virtual program for our 2020 cohort. Dr. Alan M. Scarrow, who has led the Leadership in Healthcare Course since the 2016 launch, delivered a powerful and timely webinar in May on Leadership in Times of Crisis to an exclusive group of 65 current and past CNS Leadership Fellows. This content has since been made available for purchase on-demand by all CNS members.

    The CNS Leadership Institute kicked off its 2020 virtual curriculum with a webinar on Leadership in Times of Crisis, presented by Dr. Alan Scarrow.

    Our 2020 group also participated in a series of healthcare finance webinars and virtual networking sessions, as well as an online leadership skill assessment process. While it is difficult to replicate the interaction that takes place during small group discussion and communication exercises at the live course, we hope that this virtual program will serve to help these young leaders develop foundational knowledge as they prepare to join the live course in 2021.

    Since its inception, the CNS Leadership Institute has welcomed 73 Leadership fellows to our live courses. More than 70% of those who have completed the Leadership Institute program have gone on to take formal leadership roles in CNS committees or programs. Nine of these fellows are currently sitting on the CNS Executive Committee and more than 30 have current roles on a 2020 CNS Standing Committee, Editorial Board, or as faculty for CNS courses and webinars. In addition, many have gone on to lead exciting projects and champion great changes in their own institutions, as well as step into formal faculty leadership roles. Five years in, it is almost impossible to measure the ripple effect this group of leadership fellows has had on the specialty.

    Looking ahead, the CNS plans to continue its strategic investment in the Leadership Institute, continuing to develop new on-demand content to address our member’s leadership challenges and cultivating our community of Leadership Institute fellows through expanded networking opportunities and leadership roles throughout the organization.

    Applications for the 2021 live courses will open in late 2020 and we are already looking forward to connecting with our next cohort in person next spring. For more information and applications, visit

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