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From “reverse” to “self” leadership: a journey of survival and thriving

It’s the early 1980s.

My homeland Iran is torn apart between a bloody revolution and a looming war. The militia of the Islamic regime raids houses overnight and arrests politically active people. We hear rumors that they’re tortured and pressured to rat out friends and family. Young people disappear one by one, and some of them never come back. People are terrified. We’re scared of our neighbors, friends, teachers, and each other. The adults are constantly mumbling with fear.

The unspoken public agreement is that to ensure survival, one needs to obey, hide, lie, pretend, agree, and submit.

This is considered playing smart, being diplomatic, showing leadership, and eventually winning by surviving.

This is what I now call “reverse leadership” and is my primal subconscious programming that I learned early on from my parents, elders, and society.

Saying yes, agreeing with everyone, and obeying people with power is equal to survival.

Speaking up, disagreement, and setting up boundaries is equal to death.

This is how I became a successful immigrant woman in the USA, graduated as a gastroenterologist from Yale, was recruited by UCLA, and later became a managing partner in one of the most prestigious private GI practices in the nation.

But what gets you here may not always get you further.

The “reverse leadership” I inherited from my culture ensured I became a successful physician, businesswoman, and went up the ladder, but didn’t necessarily help me survive.

The stress, hustle, and grind that was accompanied by “reverse leadership” made me sick.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age. Paradoxically, it didn’t help me survive, but it almost killed me.

What was missing?

“Self-leadership” was missing from my academic and entrepreneurial journey.

Instead of putting myself in the center of my life, my medical career, and my business, becoming curious around my wanting, showing compassion towards myself, becoming courageous to speak my truth and set boundaries, I was placing all my attention on the outside world, pleasing others.

This is what “reverse leadership” looks like.

You may not have been born and raised in an oppressive country like I have, but as successful physicians and entrepreneurs, we all share “reverse leadership” programming. And this is the main reason we suffer, our businesses don’t take off, we burn out, and in the end, leave medicine or give up on our businesses and our dreams.

If you think you cannot set boundaries and say no to your boss, if you’re scared that your staff will leave if you say no, if you’re spinning in indecision and can’t seem to trust yourself to make the right decision, if you’re scared that people may call you a bitch if you speak up, if you have been dabbling in your business, hiding in your comfort zone, and have been scared to take the big leap, if you think more about what people think of you rather than how you want to feel, if you’re experiencing anxiety around showing up in social media and promoting yourself, you’re suffering from “reverse leadership.”

It’s time for you to come out of hiding and learn “self-leadership” to build your dream career unapologetically while you’re enjoying what you’re doing for once.

When you’re accessing “self-leadership,” you’re bold, unapologetic, unstoppable, curious, confident, compassionate, tireless, and joyful.

Parastoo Jangouk is dual board-certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine, managing partner at one of the largest gastroenterology groups in the nation, Austin Gastroenterology, chair, GIA Women in Leadership Committee, and co-founder, SOULpreneurMD. She also can be reached on Instagram and TikTok.


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