Care for Self Must Come First

Graphic of Dr. Hwu's Tweet about success and how it relates to the self.
November 8, 2021
November 9, 2021
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“The most important work you will do, is the work you do on yourself.”
U J Ramdas

Dr. Patrick Hwu, CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center, used this familiar example to drive home how important focused self-care is for those who strive to be strong leaders, individuals committed to supporting others and helping them be successful. He clearly understands that only by adhering to consistent self-care can one be positioned to pursue the most ambitious goals in work and life. 

Hwu is laser-focused on his mission to cure cancer and to “find ways to get the immune system to fight cancer.” The self-driven innovator and researcher predicted that in 50 years or less, dying from cancer will be rare. After serving eight years on Moffitt’s scientific review board and being recruited to the CEO chair, he said, “I’m drawn to Moffitt because of ‘its sense of urgency’ around curing cancer. I feel like every cell in my body is energized during this first year.”


Key examples of Hwu’s leadership emerged during his lively interview with Dean Moez Limayem during a recent USF Muma College of Business breakfast series “Conversation with a CEO.” Just days from celebrating his one-year anniversary at Moffitt, it quickly became clear that Hwu is dedicated to helping others be successful. We call these “servant leaders.” He attributes his practice of “active listening,” early on in Moffitt’s hallways and elevators that revealed why Moffitt was such a successful, preeminent cancer research center. It’s the people, people who care about each other, regardless of title or position.

“There’s a million metrics, but at the end of the day, it’s about caring, for each other and for our patients. If people feel respected and supported, they feel it’s a great place to work.” It’s no accident that Moffitt is ranked one of the best places to work and for customer patient care. He believes his job as CEO is no more important than the janitorial staff or patient valets.

When asked about recruiting and developing people, he said “I always look for potential. We can teach healthcare business acumen.”

In the pursuit to find cures for the numerous types of cancer as well as tests for early detection and vaccines that are preventative, Hwu sees himself as “simply the ‘integrator’ whose role is to bring together the communities of scientific research, business and healthcare.” He believes this collaboration can speed getting cancer solutions out of the lab and to the patient. 

He models two other critical attributes seen in exceptional leaders, “transparency and accountability.” For example, Moffitt’s patient-outcome data and customer satisfaction ratings are published on their website, proud of the fact that the center’s outcomes often exceed national averages.


Hwu wants to free physicians from being “slaves to machines” and has one of the only Chief Digital Officers in the industry. The CDO is tasked with developing technology solutions that will free up physicians’ valuable time to care for patients and focus on research.  

During Q&A, an attendee asked the question Hwu said he gets the most frequently: “What foods should I eat?” To that end, he has created a Wellness Kitchen, where healthy foods that feed the body and the mind are available. He shared a bit about his own health challenges and how diet became core to his self-care. 

A tumor immunologist with 33 years of oncology research and treatment experience, Hwu took the audience through a passionate explanation of his research focused on developing vaccines that can boost the immune system to fight diseases such as COVID. However, “unlike COVID, cancer is numerous diseases,” but scientists can learn from the previously unimaginable lightning speed with which the vaccines were developed. Similarly, there were “no early believers” in his vision that immunotherapy was even a possibility for treating cancer, but that chemo was the only solution. “Cancer is not a natural way to die,” Hwu said emphatically and he aspires to elevate Moffitt to a global leader in cancer research and treatment. 

At the core of my leadership work with CEOs and senior executives from across industries is a unique diagnostic, the Hartman Value Profile™. Listening to Dr. Hwu, I imagined him in a conversation with its creator Dr. Robert Hartman about what defines exceptional leaders. Both have been purpose-driven in their work; Hwu to create a cure for cancer and Hartman to create a way for organizations to gain deeper insights into their people, beginning with how to measure the goodness in a person. This values-driven diagnostic uses deductive reasoning to measure an individual’s “strength of judgment under stress.” 

Stress is a factor in life. It’s how we manage it that matters most. When unmanaged, unhealthy  work-life balance scores appear, it’s more than likely unmanaged stress is the culprit. Identifying our individual stress relievers and making them a routine part of our self-care ensures we’re ready to meet the demands that challenge us. 

Based upon Hwu’s enjoyment dancing with his daughters on TikTok and his talent on the keyboard with the rock group The CheckPoints, a group of cancer researchers and physicians from around the country, he’s found healthy outlets for keeping his stress in check. Having a tool that acts like a “thermometer reading of an individual’s work-life balance” would be hugely valuable to the leader of any team,” particularly in a field where people’s lives are at stake. 

One chief of surgery said it best when discussing the value of the Hartman assessment in selecting his next class of surgical residents: “I don’t care about grades and references. When I’m in the OR, I want the best athlete next to me.” 

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