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Physician Leaders: Three Lessons from WWI

December 17, 2015


I talked to a large system CMO recently who realizes that many of his department chairs, chosen at a time when traditional academic, autocratic leadership was still the norm, aren’t suited to today’s new challenges. Physician recruitment is no longer just about clinical skills. We are looking for leaders. We need a new approach but we can look back a few decades for a great example of how a radical method of finding and developing leaders helped us to face a pretty daunting challenge.

In the years before WWII promotions in the military were based on tenure and rank. The next person in line, advanced when their time came. Going into WWI, George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, realized that he didn't need the next person, but the best person – in fact, the best person for very specific positions.

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He needed a strong collaborator to coordinate the efforts of the allies in Europe and reached down into the ranks to quickly promote a relatively unknown, Dwight D. Eisenhower, eventually he was promoted to the position of Supreme Commander of the Allies. Marshall also knew that pursuing an enemy across a continent was a particular skill he would need. General George Patton had many faults but this was his strength, so he kept him around for that task. Once it was complete though, and Patton became a liability, Marshall removed him from his command.

Marshall brought a new approach to building a leadership team with these three lessons:
1. Reward success.
2. Punish failure (he did not hesitate to remove an ineffective leader).
3. Find new people by looking down into the ranks to identify leadership talent.

We still need prolific, talented, academic physician leaders, but we also need physicians with real administrative, management and leadership skills - business acumen, negotiation, delegation, and consensus-building skills.

Here are four ways your organization can take the above lessons from WWI and apply them to hiring and developing physicians:
1. Define your needs with great specificity. (What behavioral skills are required for success?)
2. Reward success by developing top performers and giving them new challenges.
3. Have the conviction to move those who don’t perform or fit your vision or culture – too much is at stake.
4. Commit time and resources to a system of identifying and developing physician leaders.

To learn more – download a copy of our latest Whitepaper:

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Bryan Warren Bryan Warren is the President of J3 Personica, a consulting, assessment, training, and coaching firm, and a guest blogger for PSI. Bryan is an expert in progressive talent strategies, with a particular focus on leader and physician selection and development.