About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

Being An Officer

Chief Executive. Operations. Financial. Information. Wellness.


What’s it like to be one, I wonder? How do you see yourself? What is your purpose? Whom do you serve?

I recently heard some business executives refer to themselves as ‘officers’ of their company, and it struck me, as if I were hearing the word for the first time in this context. The vibe was not arrogant or self-aggrandizing. It came off not as corporate speak, as some label used to separate (elevate) themselves from others in the organization. The feeling really reminded me of how Simon Sinek describes marine officers in his books–the ones who lead from the front, who put themselves in harm’s way first to accomplish a mission. The leaders I heard spoke with an air of respect for the role ahead of themselves personally. It was almost reverent, in a way, like being an ‘officer’ of the company meant, as Sinek puts it, not just caring about being ‘in charge,’ but caring for the people ‘in your charge.’

Officers sit at the top of organizational hierarchy. They enjoy rank, default status, and the highest pay and benefits. They also shoulder the greatest responsibility (and ideally, accountability). In the military this includes for people’s very lives. In business this includes people’s livelihoods, and thus also their lives and those of their families. Setting aside for now the premise that boards, and thus the execs who report to them, function to advance the interests of shareholders above all, I’m thinking about how hierarchical corporate structure and its attendant attitudes serve us, each and all of us, relationally.

I perceive three primary, intersecting answers to “Whom do you serve?”: 1. Shareholders 2. Mission 3. People of the organization. The first two can be abstract; the last is very concrete. I strongly believe that leaders who prioritize the health and well-being of their people above all else are the most successful. I don’t necessarily mean success in the conventional business sense–profits, stock price, US News & World Report ranking. I mean relational success–manifest in organizational loyalty/pride, team cohesion, mission focus, low turnover, and high moral and community standing.

I think organizations with relationship-centered leaders cultivate and elevate officers who respect, acknowledge, and attend to workers at all levels in their perspective and decision making. They ask, “How does this affect our people?” before, “How does this affect our bottom line or brand?” When the latter come under threat, they will look for every available solution before sacrificing the health and well-being of their people, even when doing so is the easy and obvious path to balancing books and looking good. Led by this example, lower level leaders can feel safe to behave similarly, and the culture of safety cascades down to the lowest level worker. Cultures like this foster creativity, collaboration, innovation, and then multi-dimensional success.

I write all of this so easily as a non-officer. I understand that leading large, complex organizations is a practice in agile and dynamic balance of disparate interests in the midst of shifting markets and diverse stakeholders. I try to assess leaders fairly, and always with the heavy burden of their work in mind.

Still, I hold our highest designated leaders wholly accountable for their relational output. They set the cultural tone and attitudes for the organizations they lead. As a worker, I want to follow my officers wholeheartedly and without reservation. They have a hand in cultivating that loyalty in me. I want to show up every day proud to be part of an organization that does good–more good than just making money for the folks who own company stock, more good than meeting some external benchmark of ‘excellence’. In order to do that, I need to feel that my leaders establish and uphold a culture that cares about me as a person, as a member of the organization who matters and contributes. I want to be seen as, to feel like a unique and valued individual, not just a money making cog.

The officers I heard speaking of their roles with self-awareness and benevolence inspire me. They palliate my cynicism that corporate power and status bloat ego and ecclipse selflessness. They make me consider my own role as physician. Though I no longer hold any designated leadership title, I still lead–like it, want it, know it or not–just by virtue of my MD and role on the patient care team. I argue, too, that any team member also leads to some degree. We all take our cues from one another; we self-organize around collective priorities and norms of behavior, reinforced implicitly more than explicitly, every day. Even so, we may often think of ourselves as mere minions, that we just come to work and ‘do a job.’

What if we all thought of ourselves more as Officers like the ones I heard? What if we all took some personal responsibility to uphold a culture of valuing one another as important contributors to a mission of caring and meaning? Could we, as a groundswell from the bottom up, elevate and inspire our own officers’ attention to and value of the whole of us, from the top down? Can we all support and uphold one another from all corners, more visibly, audibly, and audaciously? Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Sometimes It Just Is

Sweary even more than usual
Foul mood …for no specific reason
Neck pain
Back pain
Dreading people
Why why why
Smoke alarms of mind and body
Where is the fire
…Maybe there isn’t one
Maybe it’s just everything (‘everywhere all at once’)
Work stress
Shorter, darker days
Capitalist materialist holidays
Poor sleep
Homesick for the mountains
Impatient for social progress
Shootings everywhere …world going to hell
So …don’t miss a workout
Make healthier food choices whenever possible
Uphold boundaries
Breathe deep …and again
Stay connected
Stop over analyzing
Let it go …or at least loosen the grip …ease the pursuit
Take care of self anyway …all the better and more
Do what you know to do
It will balance out
What you need to know will emerge eventually


Taking Up More Space

Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

Here in the last week of 30 daily posts, some themes have emerged. Liberated was initially intended as a description of growing more irreverent with age, and ‘the value of your opinion to me…’ was all I had to say about that. As I thought (and wrote) about what I really feel liberated to do and say at this age, it really did circle back to bolder bids for connection, especially at work, with patients.

Smooth With Edges also started out with more of a defiant, rebellious feeling. The meme about Hecate came across my FB feed and vibrated immediately with deep resonance–of holding divergent, soft and hard, smooth and edgy parts of myself together in harmony. I like that I’m playful, curious, lighthearted, and nerdy. I also see myself as strong, taller in personality than physical height, and a force to be reckoned with when needed. It was too much yet to try to express in prose, so I chose stanzas instead. It spilled out in seconds, and by the end was no longer about me, but about Daughter and every girl or woman who holds back any part of herself in any way, about my urgent desire for us all to shed our constraints and own our power in full.

One kid has cleared the launchpad; the other now readies in the hangar. For almost twenty years they have been the two foci of my elliptical life orbit. I have done nothing in all this time without considering and accommodating them first–waking hours, meal plans, social activities, vacation dates/locations, professional meetings and engagements. Mom liberation occurs in stages: from nursing, from carseats, from dependent cook, obligatory chauffeur. While both kids lived at home, simultaneous attunement and attachment to both was 24/7, the default. The center of my logistical world was always our house. I felt most secure when my two life hubs were home, my universe a tight sphere. Now one nucleus is flung 1700 miles away, and my heart space has expanded exponentially, in a familial big bang of sorts–and I celebrate it.

As the kids’ independence grows, I find myself with bandwidth reserves now available for other pursuits–my own. It’s not that I subsumed all of my own needs and priorities to the family, and some constraints were still very real. Sometimes now I feel like my lung capacity is bigger, my breaths deeper, my armspan longer. How fascinating.

Last year my 30 November posts were a consolidation, a legacy capsule series to reference when the primary source is deceased. This year, like Sven the sourdough starter, I rise. I expand, multiply, propagate–ideas, connections, reach. I get to play, noodle, experiment, riff–make more. How exciting!

Liberated, indeed.