In the weeks leading up to attending my first National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (“National Council”) meeting, I frequently had a seconds-long panic that I hadn’t completed my presentation. That feeling passed as I remembered that I was going to the meeting as an attendee, not as a presenter (which is usually the case). Not being prepared for public speaking is a recurrent night/day-mare. It was a relief to know that my only requirement was to show up.

Based in “sin city” (aka Las Vegas), the 2013 National Council meeting was big – over 4000 in attendance. Supposedly people don’t like to go to Vegas for meetings, but you would never have known it by the volume of people there. Whether or not you like Vegas, they do know how to hold a convention and move lots of people around. I have never before been to a professional conference that attracts as speakers 2 Pulitzer Prize winners and a MacArthur “Genius.” And, I soon learned, there is a reason the 3 are at the top of their professions and were invited to speak to the National Council conference. The message interwoven throughout the 3 talks was the importance of teamwork.

Through the art of storytelling, Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke about how adversity makes good leaders, focusing on Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Both men had serious, chronic illnesses that shaped their lives and, consequently, ours. Bringing history into the present, she spoke of how she was mesmerized by seeing Daniel Day Lewis become President Lincoln on the set of the movie based on her book, Team of Rivals, that he stayed in character on and off the set throughout the filming of Lincoln. And, of course, mental illness hovers near the surface of Lincoln’s family, including his wife and one son.

Adam Bryant is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times who delivered a talk on leadership and management, based on his interviews with CEOs for his column, “The Corner Office.” While it may seem odd for a journalist to have something valuable to say to a room full of behavioral health professionals, his message was consistent with the conference’s message – success requires passion, curiosity, respect, and teamwork. This transcends any organization. Finally, Dr. Atul Gawende is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, a practicing surgeon, and a thought leader on how to make health care more effective and affordable while improving outcomes. His ideas for reforming health care came to him while eating dinner with his children at a Cheesecake Factory in the Boston area – why can’t health care be delivered with consistently high quality, a broad range of options, and at a reasonable price (like the Cheesecake Factory). He studied the business and implementation model of the restaurant chain and drew many lessons from his research that he applies to health care reform, like teamwork.

In addition to listening to these headliners and a few other notables, I adopted a different strategy for this conference – I chose to attend some presentations and talks on topics that I was only minimally familiar with; after all, this was my opportunity for professional development. Not only did I find this informative, it required me to use my imagination to incorporate what was being discussed into my own work, considering interconnectedness of issues and solutions. Stepping outside of the sphere of familiarity and comfort was very invigorating.