What Do So Many Physician Leaders Struggle?

Five Less Traditional Leadership Traits….

In his recent book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and How to Fix It), Tomas Chamorro- Premuzic Ph.D., argues that we are often fooled by people – usually men – who are unaware of their limitations and assert themselves as leaders even when they don’t have the talents to back it up, he says.  Healthcare and medicine are not immune to this situation. 

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D.

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling and one of our scientific advisory board members.  His work was recently highlighted in Business Insider.  From the article:

  • There is nothing wrong with someone aspiring to leadership, but;
  • The problem of picking leaders on the basis of their desire to lead – is that we end up with too many incompetent leaders (it also happens that most of them men).
  • There is not much overlap between people’s self-perceived and actual talents for leadership. When someone believes, or tells you, that they are a great leader you may not want to trust that opinion. 
  • In fact, the most incompetent individuals  often have the highest levels of self-perceived ability, because they have extremely low self-awareness.
  • And these individuals actually often have an advantage when it comes to being seen as leader-like.

[T]he most incompetent individuals  often have the highest levels of self-perceived ability, because they have extremely low self-awareness.

These issues might be even more prevalent in medicine.  In other industries, people tend to move to higher levels of leadership based on demonstrated leadership ability at progressively more challenging roles. 

Medicine, though, is notorious for giving substantial high-level leadership responsibilities to outstanding researchers/clinicians who’ve had no leadership training or experience – Making the profession particularly prone to falling for the idea that the extroverted, assertive, charismatic leader –  will be the most effective leader.

This reminded me of another book, The Myth of the Strong Leaderby Oxford politics professor Archie Brown.   Brown challenged the widespread belief that strong national, political and military leaders –those who dominate their colleagues and the policy-making process – are the most successful. While we may dismiss more collegial styles of leadership as “weak,” it is often the most cooperative leaders who have the greatest impact.

While we may dismiss more collegial styles of leadership as “weak,” it is often the most cooperative leaders who have the greatest impact.

Despite this evidence, even in democracies, people are often drawn to leaders who are charismatic, opinionated, and sometimes aggressive. Do we see the same thing in medicine?

In reality, both in politics and in healthcare, effective leaders often effect dramatic change because of their mastery of collegiality and collaboration – not their charisma or aggressiveness.  In The Myth of the Strong Leader, Brown pointed to Abraham Lincoln as an “outstanding example of how collaborative and collegial leadership could be combined with attachment to principle.” That means making difficult, strategic decisions that are sure to alienate some but are in the long term greater good.

In contrast to the traditional perception of physician leaders as assertive, strong and charismatic, we’ve seen successful physician leaders demonstrate a few different traits – particularly as the industry undergoes rapid change:

  • Vulnerability – Contrary to the traits that are emphasized during medical training, effective leaders can show vulnerability that attracts respect and correlates with improved teamwork.

  • Leadership Style Flexibility – Certain situations actually call for a more autocratic leadership style.  Others require a more transformational style.  Some leaders have never even considered that idea that there ARE different styles and that they can deploy them to their advantage.
  • Consensus Building – Not a skill highly valued in medical training, but teams are more effective when their leader is adept at building consensus.
  • A Willingness to Own Difficult Decisions –Physicians make difficult decisions every day – decisions that impact patients.  As a leader, some decisions are sure to make larger groups of people unhappy.  It’s inevitable.  The talented leader is willing to make those decisions AND able to maintain the faith and respect of those who disagree with the decision.
  • Outstanding Communication skills – At its core, leadership is less about knowledge and more about relationships (in many respects the opposite of the traditional model of medical training) – and relationships are about communication.  Some people are naturally good communicators.  For those who aren’t, it’s OK – communication skills can be developed.

It’s getting better.  Organizations, and professional societies are more focused than ever on developing effective physician leaders.  As part of this focus, there is growing awareness that we need to expand beyond the more traditional, autocratic approach to leadership – and we can accomplish that through attention to enhanced self-awareness, training and coaching.  Physician want to be effective leaders. 

We just need to give them the tools.  Ideally, we realize that every physician is a leader in some capacity – so these discussions should start early in their career.

To learn more about our approach to developing effective physician leaders, visit www.j3phealthcaresolutions.com