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Three Keys to Developing Physician Leaders

March 11, 2016

physicians.jpgAlmost weekly, these days, we find ourselves talking to clients about selecting and developing physician leaders. At a recent healthcare HR conference, nearly a third of the presentations were about this topic when just a few years ago, it was rarely discussed.

The pressures on health systems and the need for effective physician leaders is driving this change. It’s good to see that progressive health systems, and much of the physician community, has recognized the need and is working on a more deliberate effort to prepare physicians to lead. Three keys to success:

  1. Recognize that All Physicians Are Leaders. Every physician is a leader in some capacity.  Leadership skills aren’t important only on committees, department meetings or in formal leadership roles. All physicians are leaders, in their community, in their practice, in their department, and on patient treatment teams. An understanding of leadership and basic leadership skills make physicians more effective in ensuring high-quality care for individual patients and entire populations.

  2. A Basic Understanding of Leadership Theories. This is a topic rarely talked about in the physician community. I’ve met plenty of “experienced” physicians who say “we know what leadership is” when in reality, they don’t. What they understand is what they’ve seen or experienced – usually a traditional, hierarchical, authoritarian leadership approach that isn’t effective today. It’s helpful to have a basic understanding of various leadership styles and theories – including terms like Human Relations theory, Situational and Adaptive Leadership and pull from various components and approaches as the situation warrants.

  3. Develop Specific Leadership Skills. Effective leadership is not some vague, amorphous quality that can’t be quantified. Effective leaders display specific leadership skills and behaviors – ideally the skills and behaviors that fit the situation and challenge – and each of these skills can be evaluated and improved. Certainly, some physicians naturally have some of these skills but the challenges we are facing require that we go beyond just hoping that physicians with these skills emerge. In other fields, where leadership is critically important, the skills are deliberately defined and developed. Be it CEO’s, military leaders or football coaches, leadership skills must be honed. For example, in healthcare, today, the following skills may not be common among even the best clinicians, but are critical for success as a leader: 

    1. Motivation
    2. Communication
    3. Team building and conflict management
    4. Risk analysis and Strategic Thinking
    5. Negotiation
    6. Business Acumen

I’ll often start a session with new physician leaders with the following table which compares actions of the traditional, authoritarian leader to a transformational leader:


I’ve found that physicians want to be effective but recognize that they rarely get formal training or coaching on how to make it happen – and some with great potential, never become the leader they could be – a loss for them, and for their organization. Most importantly, I’ve found that you need to get them to appreciate that a new approach to leadership is important, not because it will make the team feel better, but because it’s how teams get things done. Yes, in the O.R. a direct, authoritarian approach may work best, but it fails when it comes to complex team work on complex problems that require expertise in several domains. In other words, once physicians understand that changing their leadership style is the best way to get the job done, to better serve patients, and help the organization fulfill its mission, they are eager to learn and grow as leaders.

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Bryan Warren Bryan Warren was the former Director of Healthcare Solutions at PSI. He was responsible for developing and promoting tools and services designed specifically for the unique challenges faced by healthcare organizations.