Making the leap to leadership: 4 things physicians need to know

Physician leaders have become integral to today’s rapidly changing healthcare environment, acting as a bridge between providers and administrators in the healthcare system.


They play a key role in operational success—from organizational culture and economic performance to patient experience and quality of care. Physician leaders are uniquely qualified to translate the incentives of both healthcare professionals and administrators to offer broader perspectives that can help align entire organizations. In fact, physician-run hospitals, such as Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, score 25% higher in overall quality than hospitals run by administrators from management backgrounds.

But how can physician leaders execute this hybrid role without losing sight of the medicine? In this article, we’ll look at the importance of building relationships, developing emotional intelligence, continuing to practice—and how to keep it all balanced.
Build relationships
Traditionally, medicine has been a male-dominated, authoritative arena. Over time, there has been a shift in this culture toward a more collaborative, democratic, and affiliative approach. Modern leaders are now set apart by their ability to develop relationships. For example, a 2015 McKinsey survey found that just four kinds of behavior account for 89% of leadership effectiveness, with two of these behaviors identified as “supporting others” and “seeking different perspectives.” Cleary, relationship-building is paramount to being a competent leader.

As a physician leader within a healthcare organization, relationships must be cultivated with individuals of various backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. Those who pursue leadership roles must work with physician colleagues with dissimilar views, administrators with varying priorities, and employees with disparate perspectives and experiences. This will require expanded communication skills than those used in patient interactions.

Of course, it can be challenging to find the time and prioritize developing professional relationships—especially when a physician also has a busy practice. But the ecosystem of healthcare requires all leaders to develop relationships across many communities and cultures. For example, when physician leaders build relationships effectively with other physicians, it has the power to increase professional satisfaction and decrease burnout rates.

Develop emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence allows a leader to connect and engage with a wide group of people. Interestingly, it can be difficult to differentiate between those with high intelligence and those with even higher intelligence amongst a group of high-performing professionals. At a certain point, there is a ceiling effect. This is where emotional intelligence, or EQ, becomes all the more important and can make a significant difference in an individual’s success as a leader.

Emotional intelligence allows a leader to be empathetic, communicate with a wide variety of people, and provide a clear vision for many people to move in a similar direction. A leader may have a great vision, but they must also be able to communicate that vision in order to have others enthusiastically join in. While medical school may have delivered—and even encouraged—an authoritative, militaristic approach to people management, this approach does not work well to align an entire organization.

To learn more about emotional intelligence, there are a myriad of great resources available: books, podcasts, workshops, etc. Perhaps one of the best resources, however, is people. Tapping into the insights of emotionally intelligent family members, friends, or workmates can yield great results for physicians looking to communicate more effectively in the operating room through to the board room.

Continue to practice medicine
Physician leaders can often feel like they’re straddling two separate identities as both a provider for patients and a leader for the organization. For some, the pressure results in giving up more and more of their practice to spend an increasing amount of time looking at profit and loss statements, budgets, and strategic plans. High enough up the ladder, it may feel impossible to continue practicing medicine. If this point comes, it’s important for physicians to remember why they started their career in medicine. Physicians recognize when a physician leader has crossed into the realm of making decisions as an administrator who focuses only on financial margins, which feels like a betrayal of their training and their patients.

The point of having physicians serve as leaders is to provide insights from a practicing physician’s perspective. Many administrators are making decisions based on data, failing to appreciate what is not included in the data. Data is about the past, not about the future, so it can only tell so much. Furthermore, it often lacks insight regarding the unmeasured components of physician-patient relationships, such as trust, integrity, respect, and the ability to have a strong connection. Physician leaders, on the other hand, provide intuition and insights that go beyond obvious ROI. By maintaining perspective as a practicing physician, they contribute to decision-making that is patient-first and physician-first. Physician leaders have the opportunity to truly represent the patients’ perspective in administrative and financial decisions as they continue to get feedback and collaboration through consistent interaction with their patients.

As an example, consider a health enterprise tasked with building a new ambulatory surgery center. It’s important to have people sitting at the decision-making table who have actually been inside the sterile walls of an operating room. Physicians who work in that environment on a regular basis are in a great position to advocate for the needs of both patients and medical staff. Otherwise, the decisions made might look good on paper but not be in the best interest of those who will spend time in the new building. Simply put, too much of a focus on the bottom line loses all the perspective and humanity of medicine. Practicing physicians can advocate for patient-focused decision-making that will ultimately also be in the organization’s best interests.

Find Balance
Admittedly, finding balance as a physician leader can be a moving target. Maintaining a practice while also being part of the administration team can leave anyone feeling stretched thin. Practical steps can help bring more balance.

  • Schedule wisely. Bring a sense of order to a hectic schedule by carving out specific days and times each week to spend on clinical versus administrative activities. Rely on an administrative assistant to protect time blocks and schedule recurring meetings when possible to avoid constant time juggling.
  • Delegate often and early. If tasked with a new project or initiative, immediately identify key team members who can assist in its execution. Provide clear direction and leverage their talents and skills to push the project forward. Resist the urge to micro-manage, and instead set regular check-ins and identify key milestones ahead of time.
  • Develop talent: Encourage talent growth by gradually entrusting key team members with greater decision-making responsibilities. Sometimes, important decisions need to be made with incomplete information, so encourage team members to research, discuss, and deliberate decisions thoroughly. Then they can bring possible solutions to leadership, who can ensure the final solution lines up with the organization’s overall vision and culture. Over time, these individuals will be skilled at insightful decision-making and grow into a terrific resource for physician leaders.
  • Learn to say no. There will be an endless list of committees, causes, and projects vying for a physician leader’s time. When overwhelmed with demands, it can help to quickly draw out The Eisenhower Matrix, also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix. It’s a simple tool that can help to focus in on what really matters and say no to the rest.

In conclusion, medicine is not a machine. Physician leaders play an important role in maintaining a level of humanity in medicine by bridging the gap between patient needs and the bottom line. To do so, they must balance building relationships, emotional intelligence, and medical practice. It’s not easy, but it can be done — and the results will be worthwhile.

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