After a spin through state government as Massachusetts’s health commissioner, and a stint as assistant health secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Howard Koh landed back in Longwood in 2014. He now teaches leadership to doctoral students at Harvard’s public health school. I met up with him in his fourth-floor office overlooking the school’s courtyard.
Which leader do you most admire?
Nelson Mandela. The way he endured 27 years in prison is a prime example of a so-called “crucible experience” — an “intense, searing” experience that tests someone and transforms them into a great leader, Koh said. The term “crucible” comes from a pot medieval alchemists used to try to melt base metals into gold. It’s a concept taught in leadership classes, including Koh’s.
Have you had a crucible experience?
Many. In the late 1990s, when Koh had just began his tenure as state health commissioner, he found himself in the middle of a fierce competition between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Lahey Clinic over who should get a state license to conduct liver transplants. When Koh issued Lahey a provisional license, BIDMC sued him. Koh’s ruling was upheld up in court, but he called the episode a “difficult experience.” He said that battle introduced him to the topic of organ donation — and motivated him to launch a statewide effort to improve donation rates.
What’s the biggest challenge facing organ donation today?
“We have people dying on waiting lists, hoping for a life,” Koh said. “That doesn’t get the attention it deserves.” Koh said often, potential donations get lost because families don’t know if their loved ones would have liked to donate their organs. It’s “critically important” to have that conversation before it’s too late, he said.
What’s the most unusual thing in your office?
A broken 5-pound weight, which hangs on wall with a plaque that says, “Howard Koh — Like a boss.” Koh broke the weight at the intense, bare-bones fitness program CrossFit, where there’s a tradition of throwing the dumbbell on the ground after you lift. The plaque was a gift from his coach in Andover, where Koh and his wife, both doctors, take 5:15 a.m. classes. When you build a career in public health, Koh said, “you’ve gotta practice what you preach.”