Pinnacle Award Finalist Dr. David Smith: ‘Be A Servant Leader’

David Smith, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Health Affairs Military Health System

Dr. David Smith, DOD

Editor’s note: Dr. David Smith was named Healthcare Government Executive of the Year on Nov. 12.

The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.

Next is Healthcare Government Executive of the Year finalist Dr. David Smith, who’s acting principal deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Defense Department. Here, he talks accomplishments, career advice, key focus areas and more.

What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?

In 2019, I served as the DOD reform lead for health care spearheading DOD’s change management effort to reform the Military Health System, or MHS, developing 11 comprehensive initiatives resulting in sustained improvements in readiness, improved patient outcomes and substantial taxpayer savings exceeding greater than $1 billion in 2019 alone.

In 2019-2020, I helped lead implementation of the largest transformation of the $50 billion MHS in the history of the program, moving from four federated health care systems to a single enterprise strategy under the authority, direction and control of the Defense Health Agency to enhance readiness and overall effectiveness.

Additionally, we completed the review of 77 Military Medical Treatment facilities recommending capability enhancements, rightsizing and some closures by accessing value to the enterprise through either increased future readiness or essentiality due to the lack of care availability in the private sector.

Over 50 facilities were prioritized for upsizing or downsizing, and our plan received approval by the department to make these changes and to deliver this information to Congress to ensure buy-in and enable support moving forward.

In the midst of all this change, the SAR-CoV-2 pandemic hit, and I helped lead the department’s effort to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on our missions and to provide critical support to the pandemic response.

These critical efforts include advancing COVID-19 research and development to support vaccine, therapeutic and diagnostics development along with understanding the epidemiology of and elements of immunity to the novel virus, along with organizing support to national response, increasing surveillance and testing across the DDD, all to maintain mission readiness.

What has made you successful in your current role?

As many of your readers know, when you are undergoing substantial change, particularly when authorities and budgets are being realigned, there is often substantial anxiety, stress and differences of opinion to address. The ability to listen and understand various positions involved or surrounding an issue is critical to navigating decisions and making forward progress.

Additionally, helping set the goals and then empowering our workforce of dedicated professionals to get the job done is critical to maximizing mission and staff success and achieving unimaginable outcomes.

I try to model my style of leadership on the ideals of servant leadership, work first described by Robert K. Greenleaf, where a leader is a “servant first… it begins with the natural feeling one wants to serve, to serve first.” This is a natural fit for senior executives in public service and works well with a workforce with a similar penchant for service.

What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?

The mission and the people who dedicate their lives to the national defense of our country on behalf of the nation. That mission is the center pillar or glue that allows us to focus our efforts while engaging in active debate on how to best accomplish and support these missions.

The DOD has a profound “can-do-attitude” and unrivaled, extremely dedicated workforce that I am very proud to be a part of every day. This feeling is further reinforced being part of the MHS that is responsible for the care of military service members and their families who dedicate or have dedicated (retirees) their entire lives to our collective national defense.

What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation? 

The primary overarching focus is to assure the MHS continues to play a significant role in our National Defense Strategy by supporting any mission we are called upon by the nation to support. This is why we focus on assuring a force that is always medically ready along with a ready medical force to provide global and domestic response while simultaneously sustaining the provision of health care for our 9.6 million beneficiaries.

Relative near-term goals include: complete the transition of all of our Military Medical Treatment Facilities under one enterprise leadership at DHA; optimize the medical footprint to assure a medically ready force and a medical force that is ready while maintaining great access and high-quality care for all who we provide care to; and complete the implementation of our new electronic health record replacement, MHS Genesis.

Once accomplished, these will reinforce our continued legacy of excellence in support of our warriors and our collective defense.

How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?

First, by recruiting great talent through active human resource management. Additionally, we sponsor fellowships through the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences and the White House Fellows programs. Once new employees are on-board, we support their development through active mentor programs and robust career enhancement opportunities, such as continuing education, to develop the next generation.

Finally, we always balance the employee’s growth needs with mission requirements to enhance performance and optimize a positive and rewarding work environment.

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Some of the advice that I provide to aspiring new personnel includes: Be a servant leader and embrace service because you want to serve first. Your desire to be leader should come from that desire to serve versus wanting to be a leader first.

Excel at what you do and make sure you are having fun and enjoy what you are doing. Become or continue to be a life-long learner.

Meet the other Pinnacle Awards finalists here.

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