Physician Leaders: piloting the ship, or going down with it?

I’ve worked with and studied a lot of physician leaders. They have all been excellent clinicians, surgeons, and care givers. However, when tapped to lead (a clinic, department, or hospital) there is sometimes a lack of experience and skills that are needed to be an effective leader.

Trained as experts to make life-saving decisions, doctors are sometimes reluctant to listen to others’ opinions. Sometimes this is the result of a conscious decision and sometimes this is a result of an unconscious decision – which can be the result of the type of training they have experienced. Typically this trait of taking a "rely only on myself" quality is most pronounced when multi-tasking, under stress or in times of change, all of which a leader faces on a regular basis.

As we have all seen, leaders have significant impact on the individuals and teams in their organizations. This impact can be either very positive or very damaging. So, when you’re looking to promote a talented physician (and this also applies to other clinical staff as well) to a leadership role, please consider whether or not they possess the following qualities:

  • Good listener: one who can consistently listen and be open to others’ opinions and perspective. Is it "my way or the highway"? Do they always need to be right or act like they have something to prove?
  • Effective communicator: can this person talk to their peers, other leaders and subordinates with the same degree of effectiveness? Can they deliver difficult messages in a constructive manner?
  • Collaborates/relates well to others:  does she/he behave in a way that indicates a core belief that functioning as a team is a preferred and productive way to manage? Or, is it more about the individual and trying to outwork any issue or challenge that needs addressing?
  • Has a shared group vision: is there a singular agenda or is this person open to what is best for the team and organization?  Sometimes called collective thought—there needs to be a clearly defined mission, with ways to measure milestones, successes and, inevitably, failures (so you can learn from them).
  • Will lead, not dictate: ask yourself if this individual is truly a team player and willing to continue to roll up his/her sleeves and do the work and lead by example, not just sit behind a desk in their new corner office expecting the work to be done as they dictate.
  • Humble: Finally, I’ve found that being humble, open and willing to learn goes a long way. Yes, practitioners at this level have become experts in their specialty.  However, when steering a larger ship, there are new qualities, skills and tools that need to be learned and integrated into their job. Are they humble enough to realize this and to do the development work that is required?

If the clinician you’re looking to promote has at least 3 of the above qualities, then there’s a good chance they will become successful and effective leaders. We all know it takes a solid foundation of non clinical skills in order to effectively navigate the stormy waters of clinical leadership.

If you have an already promoted a leader who needs some skill development, contact us. Or if you have a practitioner who you’re thinking about promoting and have some nagging questions, contact us. Coaching for skill development is what we do. Let us help!

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