Doing Business in Metro Charleston The doctor is in: David J. Cole is president of MUSC

Dr. David Cole, MUSC president, before going into surgery.

Dr. David J. Cole came to the Medical University of South Carolina in 1994 as an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery.

The oncologist quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to professor in 2002. Five years later, he was named chairman of the Department of Surgery and was elected president of MUSC Physicians in 2013.

The following year, he was named president of MUSC, which has a 700-bed medical center, six colleges, 3,000 students, 1,500 full- and part-time faculty and an overall population of 13,000 clinicians.

The Mount Pleasant resident has a bachelor’s degree in biology from New Mexico State University in his home state and a medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in upstate New York.

In addition to his clinical expertise, Cole has a cancer research background and had secured more than 17 years of continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Q: A brief description of your business?

A: MUSC is an academic medical center. We serve as the major tertiary health care facility for the state of South Carolina with over 1 million patient encounters a year. With six colleges across the campus, we educate all dimensions of health care providers, and with over $240 million annually supporting our research mission, we provide the opportunity to change the future of health care.

Q: Who is your favorite business leader and why?

A: To narrow to one leader is a bit unfair; however, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, comes to mind. He’s an innovator in the truest sense of the word. He has led numerous game-changing technologies and concepts, and with his vision and leadership, Google is redefining how we connect and move business ideas forward in innovative ways.

Q: Who is your favorite leader of any kind and why?

A: Abraham Lincoln. He was a humble leader who led this nation during some of its most challenging times, and he’s heralded as a model leader with over 150 years of scrutiny. And he led with such an admirable balance of common sense and heart. I’d love to see what he’d do with Google.

Q: What is the best leader-ship advice you have received?

A: You are only as good as the people around you. My leadership priorities are rooted in surrounding myself with competent and values-oriented teams. To me, this combination creates the most dynamic and sustaining culture, and culture is critical for a successful business.

Q: What is the best leadership advice you could give?

A: People and businesses are at their best when you are able to pair passion with talent. The difficult part is discerning what is right. If you are guided by discernment, the rest will fall into place.

Q: What is the best book on business or leadership that you have read and why?

A: Two books on the same great leader (Lincoln) come to mind: “A Team of Rivals,” and “Never Give Up.” Two remarkable stories highlighting one of the singular best examples of individual leadership.

Q: What business publications do you regularly read?

A: Of course, I stay locally tuned with The Post and Courier, and I feed myself with varying perspectives from the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, the New England Journal of Medicine, and a myriad of outstanding health care and academic industry publications that others might use as nonmedicinal sleep aids.

Q: What are the most important decisions you make as a leader at your business?

A: Defining direction, staying connected at the ground level with our mission, identifying good people and putting them in a position to succeed.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing business leaders today?

A: In health care, we are faced with the most significant challenge of our generation: transforming a fractured and expensive system into a patient-centered, health-oriented system. On a local level, it is clearly the building of an infrastructure that keeps pace with our region’s growth.

Q: What is your biggest mistake as a leader and what did it teach you?

A: I’ve learned to make hiring decisions more thoughtfully, and to not rush a process if the right person has not surfaced. And once that person is hired, my role is to do all I can to see that they are successful.

Q: What was your biggest success as a leader and what did it teach you?

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.


A: My ability to form and support successful teams. I have learned that the power of a team is key, the effort of one individual, by definition, will be limited.

Q: What are you doing to grow the next leader in your organization?

A: Well, first I would say it’s not about growing THE next leader, but rather the cadre of talent that exists at MUSC. One of our top priorities is building lifelong learners. And with this, leadership development is paramount. We have about 1,500 formal leaders at MUSC and more than 12K informal leaders. We have a responsibility to grow all of them.

Q: How do you define a great business?

A: One that embraces its people, while nurturing their respective passion and purpose. And at the end of the day – it must have a meaningful impact in the world.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about doing business in this region?

A: I have to say it’s the genuine and respectful nature of the people here ... from our political leaders, to my fellow university presidents and business colleagues, to the incredible spirit of those that I cross paths with every day on our campus. You may not realize how special our community is until you leave it.

Q: What is your least favorite thing about doing business in this region?

A: Aside from the inherent complexities of operating a state-governed institution, it’s the fact that Southern food is so delicious and we’re trying to be a model of healthy living. I’m not ready to give up on biscuits, fried foods and pecan pie.

Q: Name one thing government could do to help your business?

A: That question is contrary to how I think. It’s more about what can I do to help government. I believe the more we can share about the successes of our research, our health education and our clinical deliveries, then the government becomes one of our most willing and able partners.

Q: Name one thing government could stop doing to help your business?

A: How about I answer that on my exit interview. I love this work too much to limit my presidency with that one! Seriously, those questions are best answered in honest dialogue with government officials around the table. So I’ll save my thoughts for that setting.