77: Being a Unicorn in Physician Leadership with Dr. Camelia Lawrence

by Coach Gabriella Dennery MD | Leadership, Physician Coaching, Podcast

“Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s actually a part of success.” -Dr. Camelia Lawrence

This episode is about physician leadership, with Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Dr. Camelia Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence is a board-certified surgeon specializing in benign and malignant breast disease. She is also a huge advocate of women’s health and she’s a unicorn! You’ll have to listen to find out what that means. When you do, you will hear loads of wisdom from a very inspiring person. If you are feeling stuck or unfulfilled or maybe just need a good dose of motivation, you will enjoy this episode! 

Dr. Camelia Lawrence, MD, FACS, is a board-certified surgeon specializing in benign and malignant breast disease. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and her medical degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine. She completed her residency at New York Medical College and then entered her fellowship training in breast surgical oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA. She currently serves as Director of Breast Surgery for the Hospital of Central Connecticut and Midstate Medical Center, responsible for further developing their breast programs.

She serves as assistant professor of surgery at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where she works with medical students and surgical residents, nurturing her personal interest in teaching the future generation.

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 Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below:

Camelia: Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It is actually a part of success.


Gabriella: Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery, MD, life coach at DocWorking and cohost of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast, and welcome to today’s episode. I’m so excited to introduce to you, Dr. Camelia Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence, you are a board-certified surgeon specializing in benign and malignant breast disease, currently serving as Director of Breast Surgery for the hospital of Central Connecticut and MidState Medical Center. You are responsible for developing and the further development of their breast programs. Dr. Lawrence, you’re also a really staunch advocate for women’s health, and you are a passionate public servant. I wanted to get to that in a minute. But before we get to that, welcome.


Camelia: Thank you so much for having me, Gabriella. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Gabriella: Thank you. Before we get started in terms of your passion for public service and advocacy for women’s health, can you tell us a little bit about your journey in medicine, and what inspired you to become a physician, and what inspired you to be where you are today?


Camelia: I have always been intrigued by the power of healing and wanted to be a part of that. Even since I can remember being a little girl, I’ve always believed that medicine alone, perhaps with the exception of the priestly ministry impact on the heart and soul of people. It’s truly special and amazing to be a part of that. As it pertains to physician leadership, I felt that as a female, as a woman of color, and a woman of color that’s also a surgeon, who has a visible presence, if you will, that I had an obligation to help others traverse the climb, to inspire others in their career, to reach for the stars, irrespective of from where they may have originated.


Gabriella: I think that is a great segue into my next question, because the reason I reached out to you is because you had a fabulous post on LinkedIn, and I said, “I have got to have Dr. Lawrence as a guest on the DocWorking Podcast.” It was a picture of you in your surgical scrubs, and it had to do with being ready, and at the corner on the bottom, it said something like, ‘Be a Unicorn.” I wanted to ask you, what does it mean to you to be ready?


Camelia: To be prepared for the moment and being able to rise to the occasion. It took a long journey for us as a whole or any individual to become a physician. Once you get to that point and even while you’re preparing to get there, you want to embody excellence. The way in which you do so is acknowledging that you don’t know everything, and that you have an obligation to yourself as a professional to those who you care for, to be prepared to offer the best possible care that’s available. So, that photo and the quote on LinkedIn embodies that. I had been out the evening before. I reviewed my cases. I’m already anticipating what am I going to do in the operating room and I’m blessed to be in an environment where there are likeminded folks where the OR team is always prepped and ready to go to ensure that we have a successful operative day.


Gabriella: So, anticipation of what happens the next day. Are there other aspects of readiness that you also delve into before you go into the OR?


Camelia: In terms of challenges, you do. Everything that we do in life, sometimes you often encounter roadblocks and hurdles along the way. So, I’m always looking to see what are the possible obstacles and roadblocks that I can encounter. Not just to do with the OR, but in life in general, and being prepared and realizing that my reaction is what’s going to empower that situation, and I choose how to respond to whatever those challenges are. in fact, I use them to help build my resiliency muscle, to enhance my talent, and to widen my horizon in my perspective.


Gabriella: Excellent point. So, how do you define that unicorn?


Camelia: It’s something or someone that’s highly desirable, but very difficult to be found or to be attained. For me, as a woman and as a woman of color, in surgery, when you look at the data, someone like myself represents less than 2% of physicians in the United States as a whole. So, that’s where the entire term in terms of unicorn originated from.


Gabriella: You mentioned something about your team being prepared and that you are working with likeminded people, and in the trajectory in medicine, it’s not always that case, that medicine can be pretty traditional nonconformist environment, and so, my question to you over the years and you’ve had a pretty nice, long, exciting trajectory in medicine. How have you maintained and cultivated your unicorn status over the years?


Camelia: To be a unicorn, I think you have to be willing to stand out from the pack. Sometimes, take a different pathway forward, you can also pay a price for this. The vast majority of people will take the high road. They’ll be supportive, encouraging, but there are also others who may not be so kind and may want you to conform. They may also display petty jealousies. They may help to create obstacles in your pathway. But I think for me as a unicorn, I think you have to understand that standing apart from the crowd can attract negative attention. But thankfully, most of the time, it is positive.


Gabriella: You talk about building those resiliency skills, because at times, although the negative usually tends to be, as you said, the minority, the smaller percentage of situations, the larger percentage usually are built on good, and I firmly believe that as well. But you’ve got to be ready also for that smaller percentage. So, I think that relates back to readiness as you talked about earlier, and as you mentioned, the word ‘resilience’ and building that resilience muscle is for those situations and then some. Did you want to add anything to that?


Camelia: I always say listen to your intuition, your gut instinct. When I started out in medicine, I will tell you when it comes to interaction and perhaps my level of emotional intelligence, it was definitely not where it is today. There was a sense of naiveness that comes along and quickly over time, you learn that will not benefit you. So, I have done a lot of self-exploration, self-discovery. I try to learn from experiences that have had both the good as well as the bad and build from there. When it comes to validation, if you are somebody who thrives in an environment where you’re consistently being validated, that may not happen for you, and you have to understand that your value is intrinsic, that you may not get that external validation, it doesn’t mean that you are any less value or importance in the role or tasks that you have ahead of you.


I tell folks go for it. Manifest your greatness because we all have a talent. We have a God-given talent, and we can all develop it, and we can use it for the better good of humanity as a whole. My infamous quote is “Just keep climbing,” and you have to be prepared to fall but you get back up and you keep going.


Presenter: Stay tuned for more from today’s guest after this important message.


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Gabriella: How would you at this point in your career, Dr. Lawrence, describe your leadership style, given all that you’ve learned and all that you bring to the table?


Camelia: I think over the years, what I’ve realized is that my most impactful leadership style would be one that is collaborative. There’s an old African proverb that said, “If you want to go fast, go it alone. But if you want to go far, you go with others.” It has been said that success has a thousand parents, but failure is an orphan. So, winning feels good, though if you’re going to be effective in leadership and make an impact, you have to be willing to take risk and you have to be willing to fail, and that’s one message I’ve tried to get out to my mentees, is that you have to be willing to take risks and you have to be willing to fail. You’re going to fail at times. But failure isn’t the opposite of success. It is actually a part of success. It’s about getting back up, learning from those obstacles and setbacks, going back to the drawing board, and then moving forward with their newfound knowledge that you’ve acquired.


Gabriella: You touched on my next question. What other words of encouragement would you offer to physician leaders, physician community, younger physicians at this point, given everything that they’ve dealt with in the last year and a half and moving forward?


Camelia: It’s important to attempt to position yourself in a supportive environment. I remember I was in a challenging work environment a few years ago, and one of my mentors said to me, “Camelia, you’re always going upstream. You’re always positioning yourself in these spaces where you’re going upstream. It is very hard to find success in spaces where you’re not supported, and you don’t have the resources.” Basically, “You’re not a tree, move.” I think sometimes, there are hesitations in our part, it’s the devil that we know, we think we can change things, we can make it work, and we overextend ourselves and unhappiness finds us in our profession. Not necessarily the day-to-day clinical work that we do, we love to do that, but all the other bureaucracies that get laid on to that can be discouraging. So, I would impart to any young physician, if you find yourself in such an environment, a toxic space, move on. You will thrive in a much healthier supportive environment. Go where you’re celebrated, not just tolerated.


Gabriella: Oh, I love that. [laughs] Those are words to live by because you’re right. It’s easy to stay put and just hope to get through it and just tag along, and it may take a few years. It took me a few years, for example, to finally do that, to move on because of toxic environments. But it’s a valuable lesson. I thank you very much for sharing that. What is next for you, Dr. Lawrence?


Camelia: I like to think of myself at this juncture, mid-career, I’m going through this transformation of trying to figure out where can I have an impact on a much larger scale. I love what I do. I think I will always find myself in the operating room. That’s where I do my best work and where I think I’m most impactful in helping women in their fight against breast cancer. But I’m also interested in growing the advocacy piece to community empowerment and educational piece that I’m quite fond of. So, I’m exploring opportunities and pathways in which I can do so. I’m at the infancy of that journey. We’ll see where I end up.


Gabriella: Excellent, and we will keep tabs on you. We’re connected on LinkedIn. I check your posts almost every day, and I’m inspired by your quotes, and they actually help me as well. Are you open to people connecting with you?


Camelia: Oh, absolutely, every and anyone. Please do connect. My posts, they’re as helpful to you as they are to me. I meditate, and when I wake up in the morning, whatever comes to mind that I find uplifting and inspiring for myself, I often share it on LinkedIn to encourage others who are also on this journey of growth and development.


Gabriella: Speaking of which, I have one last question that just popped into my head. Where do you see the future of medicine at this point?


Camelia: That’s a million-dollar question. 


Gabriella: It’s a million-dollar question. [laughs] 


Gabriella: I think there’s several unknown, but I think we are at a breaking point. I think the pandemic has exposed some of the weaknesses within our professions. I’m excited about the future. We know that we can’t go back to what we considered as normal. We need to be better than normal, and there’s several avenues on the horizon. What I like is the attention that the pandemic has brought to these issues. I don’t know what all the answers are and I don’t know what all the solutions are, but I think we have the best minds now at the table and the importance of supporting physicians. Physicians, despite the fact that we are the scientists, we are the medical experts, over the years, we’ve been boxed in a little corner and there are different drivers of healthcare which I think need to change. It should be more of a collaborative approach in terms of decision making.


Gabriella: I share the same hopes that because of the exposure that pandemic provided that we are headed in a different direction in terms of not just patient care, but physician care and healthcare professional care in general. Dr. Lawrence, thank you so much for being a guest on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. You bring up some incredible pearls of wisdom which we will be posting and sharing as well. Thank you so much. 


Camelia: Well, thank you for having me, Gabriella. It’s been fantastic.


Jill: I have great news. At DocWorking, we have put together a new subscription service called DocWorking THRIVE. It basically is all of the things that you as physicians have asked us for in one package. It is group coaching by professional coaches around problems and challenges specifically for you that is completely private and confidential. We also have a private and confidential Facebook group. So, you can join in community with other physicians and also there, it is facilitated by professional coaches, physician coaches, who are physicians themselves or people who’ve been coaching positions like me for a really long time. 


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Amanda: Hello, and thank you for listening. This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of the DocWorking Podcast. If you enjoyed our podcast, please like and subscribe. We would also love it if you check out our website which is You can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and on Instagram. On Instagram, we are @docworking1 and that is what the number one. When you check us out on social, please let us know what you would like to hear on the podcast. Your feedback really means a lot to us. If you’re a physician with a story you’d like to tell, please reach out to me at [email protected] to apply to be on the podcast. Thank you, again, and we look forward to talking with you on the next episode of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.


Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

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