Several events this week inspired me to think about preparing to be a better physician leader.

A colleague reminded me about the upcoming Spring Institute and Annual Meeting of the American Association for Physician Leadership. I had just completed registering myself. And I volunteered to act as an ambassador, assisting with introducing speakers and helping to support the meeting.

Networking with colleagues and old friends will be fun. And I look forward to spending time in New York City with my wife, Kay, when I am not attending educational sessions.

better physician leader board

As vice president of the local nonprofit hospice board, I had the privilege of chairing the board meeting because the president was out-of-town. It was interesting to observe how the board members, many of them leaders in their own organizations, communicate with one another and run some of the subcommittees to which they are assigned. It is a very effective team.

I also had the opportunity to present a lecture to the internal medicine residents at the hospital where I previously worked as chief medical officer.

When choosing the topic for the lecture, I consulted with the residency leadership but also reflected on the topics I had written about on this blog for the past nine months.

As I did so, two revelations occurred to me:

  • Physicians are natural leaders.
  • Most physicians will assume formal leadership roles during their careers.

I thought about all of the physicians I have known over the years. Very few spent 20 or 30 years practicing without assuming some management or leadership role.

They have been hospital committee or department chairs or president of the medical staff, medical directors, nonprofit board members or former hospital or medical group executives. Or they have become involved in their specialty society. I have other colleagues that serve as county and state medical society trustees or committee chairs.

Given this likelihood, it make sense that physicians, even those still in training, begin to think about the gaps that exist in their abilities as they learn to be a better physician leader.

So this post and the next are based on the lecture I gave to the residents this week.

Physicians Are Natural Leaders

better physician leader traits

You have met the challenges of a rigorous and challenging process. Many of the traits that have allowed you to complete your training successfully are those needed by leaders:

  • Intellect
  • Focus
  • Accountability
  • Ability to handle complexity
  • Good communication skills
  • Perseverance
  • Commitment
  • Altruism
  • Desire to work with people

Most of these traits will serve you well as a future leader. Some, like accountability and communication skills, will need to be enhanced.

Most Physicians Will Lead

There is an ongoing and increasing demand for physician leaders. Physicians prefer to be led by other physicians. Engagement of physicians improves when physicians lead their organizations.

Better engagement creates better quality outcomes and patient satisfaction. Other team members are inspired when the physicians are passionate and engaged.

Hospitals are seeking more chief quality officers, chief medical officers and other physician executives with management training and experience.

Value based care, pay for performance and population health initiatives require the input of physician leaders that can integrate the clinical with the business aspects for large organizations.

This recognition has led to an explosion in need for physician executives.

But there are new attitudes and skills that must be improved or developed in order to be a better physician leader.

Preparing to Be a Better Physician Leader

Existing leadership characteristics and abilities must be enhanced and new ones must be learned. In Part 1 of this series, I am going to focus on just a few of the attitudes or perspectives that emerging physician leaders should adopt.

In Part 2, I will discuss some specific skills that should be learned or honed as these new roles are assumed.

Physician leaders, to be most effective, must evolve to being:

  • Proactive rather than reactive;
  • Planners rather than performers;
  • Strategic rather than tactical;
  • Delegators rather than deciders;
  • Participative rather than independent; and,
  • Organization focused rather than practice focused.

And  I believe that there are three special areas that we should try to enhance as leaders.


The accountability inherent in individual patient care should evolve into accountability for the team or the organization. One sign that accountability is in place is the ability to admit mistakes. The young physician leader must be willing to own up to mistakes.

better physician leader accountable

No one is infallible. We all make mistakes. But the sign of leadership is our ability to admit our mistakes, regroup and move on.

There is a process that leaders use to address individual accountability in an organization. I saw this most clearly described by Michael Hyatt. The process follows these steps:

  • Admit that you did not prepare, communicate or manage properly to achieve the desired result;
  • Restate your understanding of your responsibility;
  • Explain how you’re going to rectify the problem;
  • Commit to resolve the issue by a specific deadline.


Healthcare can be challenging and frustrating. Payments are declining. Patients can be demanding. Personnel issues make us crazy.

better physician leader optimismToo many times I have been in conversations with physicians that are negative and defeatist. Apathy and resignation are rampant.

But leaders cannot withdraw. As a leader, you must inspire and encourage your team and remind them of the shared mission and vision, even when things are not going so well.


I can't count the number of times I heard one of my physician colleagues offer an opinion on a topic about which he knew very little. Some of my colleagues seem to think that their medical degree grants them insights into every field of endeavor.

better physician leader humility

Leaders are not self-righteous, or condescending. They're able to admit that they’re not the experts in every field. They hire and defer to people who are smarter than they are and welcome input and allow associates to accomplish goals in their own ways, without micro-managing.

Nobody wants to follow a leader that's a know-it-all.

In Summary

Observing attitudes in ourselves and our colleagues is a start to understanding how they affect managing and leading.

Next Steps

Watch how others lead. See how they express their accountability, optimism and humility through their body language, and verbal and written communication. Observe how others respond to their leadership style and personality.

Then reflect on your own approach to these issues. Ask a few close friends how your own personality and leadership style are perceived. You may receive some interesting insights.

I encourage you to attend the upcoming meeting of the American Association for Physician Leadership. The speakers are excellent, the content is very useful, and the conference offers great value to the new or established physician leader.

In the next post, I will continue with a discussion of the skills new physician leaders should begin to understand and acquire.

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