Physicians Leading | Leading Physicians

What Type of Leader Do I Wish to Be?

Article · August 7, 2017

We have all heard the expression of praise that a person “is a born leader.” Despite the admiration captured in these words, they imply that excellent leadership is innate only to a few, and that the rest of us not born with such talents must accept, with grace, a second-class standard.

Throughout my career as a practicing physician (SBK), I have observed various styles of compelling leadership. Those with whom I work teach me, model for me, the complex array of what it means to be a fine leader. I respect and value what I have witnessed. I try to assimilate their admirable qualities, combine their best attributes, and then apply them to my own skills and personality. And I have come to see that great leaders are not born. They model and learn and grow.

The health professions need to pay more attention to developing leaders. Surprisingly, even among emotionally intelligent and highly educated health care professionals, insufficient attention is given to the skills that produce fine leaders. Attending to this vacuum within health care organizations can contribute to a wave of fresh leadership in an environment that buoys more than suppresses, that is both optimistic and realistic.

The leaders who have most inspired me, both inside and outside the medical profession, combine two pivotal ingredients: operational/managerial competence and superb traits of personal style. While some leaders display an excess of one over the other, the most effective leaders unite competence to personality. The result? I want to follow them. I want to model them.

What, then, are essential managerial characteristics of leaders who cause me to move to action and to want to achieve their goals? These leaders:

  • Have high integrity. They keep their word; they set high expectations based on thorough preparation; they validate information that proceeds from flawless metrics.
  • Project clarity of thought and precise articulation. They establish a vivid agenda based upon shared ideas and mutual vision; they receive and respect disagreement and suggest reasonable resolutions.
  • Value the potential in others. They respect ideas over pedigree or reputation; they hire for potential and unique personal attributes as affecting a group setting; they admire diversity in leadership.
  • Mentor and sponsor their people. They connect members of their group to others beyond the immediate circle; they cultivate growth opportunities; they delegate responsibilities that enhance personal development; they communicate trust even as they guide.

Excellent leaders bring to operational competence a blend of personal traits unique to themselves and vital to the professional climate. The application of these traits is crucial to how leaders inspire others to follow, commit, and grow. These leaders:

  • Demonstrate steadiness at the helm. They inspire common purpose; they are confident in their priorities; they are decisive; they communicate vision and dependability in an atmosphere of clarity.
  • Trust the basic goodwill of people. They respect the challenges others face but do not coddle; they project humility over ego; they inspire confidence by understating their individual contributions; they project “first among equals.”
  • Acknowledge their humanness. They readily share failures and vulnerability; they do not wilt under setbacks; they convey humor amid constructive self-criticism.
  • Combine optimism with realism. They are adaptable; they discover hope and opportunity in challenges; they convey trust that their colleagues will reach solutions; they remain positive despite political and institutional pitfalls.
  • Are creative. They discover fresh approaches; they customize unique ways for employees to meet goals; they value original input; they affirm others by encouraging expertise and opinions different from their own.
  • Give credit broadly, generously, and fairly. They are not threatened by but welcome the success of others; they encourage individuality; they respect and praise the hard work of others.

Leadership author Herminia Ibarra recommends that as people strive to establish their own style of leadership, they should search out kindred spirits because “The fastest way to change yourself is to spend time with people who are already the way you want to be.” As I consider the various leaders whom I have followed or continue to follow, I notice that there is no logic or predictability in my relationship to them. Compelling leadership qualities are not related to seniority trees or depth charts. I have found kindred spirits.

I realize my indebtedness to friends, colleagues, sponsors, mentors, chairs, and a host of others. Those who have most helped me toward success are those who allowed me to discover my voice, to carve my singular path, to develop nontraditional connections. Through their support, I have come to appreciate that I can mentor successful leadership in others. I recognize that born leaders do not exist. And what is more, I see that great surgeons, talented physicians, effective ER nurses — whatever their fine talents may be — still may have room to learn more about effective leadership, strong bedside caring, and effective academic and collegial interaction.

Such growth is possible, even necessary, at every level of expertise, for the holistic betterment of medical care. Explicit training for leaders in the health care environment is a particular passion of mine, and I strive to facilitate fresh opportunities in the various roles I serve. During my years as President of the Women Faculty at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, I proposed and initiated a professional development program. With the unfaltering support of our Dean, Pamela B. Davis, and her office, a group of faculty gathered with the explicit goals of increasing the number of qualified women leaders in the health sciences. Currently in its fifth year, FLEX, as this program is named, offers peer learning, networking, and skill building within an atmosphere of institutional support and goodwill.

Of the 70 women faculty experiencing this program, more than 80% have received promotion, an award, or career recognition. Naturally, many of these accolades reflect their own innate career trajectory and talent, but many participants credit their accomplishments to the skills and peer support found in the FLEX program. These colleagues are locating their individual “leadership voices” and serve as inspiring examples to those around them.

We are onto something here. My professional friends and colleagues want to continually learn and develop; they seek to raise confidence in their individuality and abilities, and they aspire to be effective in inspiring others. From such small ripples, larger waves will form.

I hope to be the kind of leader who contributes to this improvement with empathy and consistency and create new ripples wherever I go.


This post originally appeared in NEJM Catalyst on April 19, 2017.

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