Many physicians are seeing the need and accepting the role of leadership responsibilities. Previously, these doctors have seen colleagues struggle in these roles or have struggled themselves. Although the future of healthcare depends on good physician leadership, the myth is that leadership is hard.

Being an effective leader is not harder than medicine. As leadership is different, knowing how it is different than medicine is key to making your leadership roles easier.

Walter’s Challenge

Walter, a mid-career physician hospitalist, is the recent leader of his clinical team. He was excited to implement a new program to streamline rounds between hospital floors. At a professional meeting, Walter had learned about a strategy he believed would work well for his hospital.

But Walter got resistance from team members about this change. They saw no guarantee it would be an improvement and felt it would require some changes to the work schedule. Walter believed that if he made a good case about the value of the new program, it would be adopted. The lack of compliance proved otherwise.

Walter, confused and frustrated, assumed that his role as team leader must be hard, because he was not getting expected results. He could have saved himself time and angst if he had known earlier that being a leader is not hard, it is just different from his experience as a physician.

Nature of Medicine vs. Nature of Leadership

In many ways, the practice of medicine is like swimming, and the practice of leadership is like soccer. Swimming is primarily an individual sport. Although swimmers have support people, it is the swimmer who ultimately swims the meet and carries responsibility for success. Like medicine, swimming requires tremendous focus and extensive practice.

Soccer is a fluid, ever-changing game in which the team wins based partly on individual performance but primarily on how well individuals play as a team. Individuals must play their roles and understand the game rules, but they must also play effectively as a team if they expect to win. Teams win when players read the game as it plays out and react quickly, because they trust and know what to expect from each other.

The challenge for physicians in leadership roles is to learn new rules of the game and requirements for success.

How Walter Won the Leadership Game

Walter turned the resistance around on his team when he adopted one new mindset and incorporated a few new leadership skills. Working together with his team, Walter shifted his mindset to, “My role is not providing the right answer, but creating an environment to bring out the right answer.”

The specific leadership skills Walter practiced were to refrain from dominating discussions and instead to actively listen to his team members and encourage them to contribute their perspectives. Walter modified his team meetings to ensure accountability on agreements, once he had solicited how others wanted to support the project.

Healthy Trends

As the practice of medicine becomes more team-based, more focused on managing patient populations over time, and more engaged in care that is integrated across many boundaries, the differences between the practices of medicine and leadership are shrinking. Nevertheless, despite the fact that these trends are healthy, they will not dramatically reduce the differences between the two skill sets in the short term.

Work with a coach experienced with physicians to enhance your leadership skills and to encourage you to embrace leadership opportunities in healthcare.

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