5 Physician Leadership Lessons from the Astronaut Physician

5 Leadership Lessons from the Astronaut Physician

American healthcare is crying out for physicians to step up into leadership roles.  Physician-run hospitals on average are safer, more productive, and have higher patient satisfaction ratings (Harvard Business Review, 2016).  Have you ever wondered if you have the skills to take on the challenge of physician leadership?

I had the pleasure recently to interview Dr. Scott Parazynski, the astronaut physician.  He flew over 23 million miles in space and later climbed Mt. Everest.  With all of these amazing experiences, he has learned a lot of lessons.  Here are the top five that I pulled from my conversation with Dr. Scott Parazynski.

Physician leadership lesson 1: Teamwork is vital to the success of any venture. physician leadership - teamwork

No one is bigger than the mission.  Physician leadership is not top-down control.  To lead a team well, you’ve got to utilize the strengths of your team members to accomplish the mission.  

The truth is, as a physician, you’re probably capable of doing more by yourself than most people can.  However, you definitely can’t do more by yourself than you can with a good team working with you.

What are you doing to motivate and train your team?  Have you considered:

  • Are there any team members that would utilize their strengths more effectively in a role they’re not currently in?
  • Do you have leaders under you that can coach, encourage, and teach your team members how to excel?
  • Do you have team members that just aren’t getting the job done and need to find another job?
  • Are your team members seeking to build each other up or do they just want to get ahead by any means necessary?
  • What’s everyone’s primary focus?  Individual achievement, or team success?

Physician leadership requires us to mold our team members into a cohesive unit.  You can’t function if your team isn’t unified.

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Physician leadership lesson 2: Foster a culture where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts

Here’s one of the first things I always tell a new team member when they come to work for me.  “It’s very important to me that everyone have their brain engaged at all times.  If you see something, say something.  When something doesn’t feel right or doesn’t make sense, then speak up!

If I can’t give you a good reason why we’re doing something, maybe we need to change that.”

This really helps people feel more comfortable, and that’s good for patients!  I’ve had times in a case when a nurse or technician said, “Dr. Lacey, I think we’re missing something here.”  In those moments, we stop, and everyone offers their input.  We make a team decision, then we continue.

When a patient has 5 pairs of eyes and 5 minds working together, it’s 5 times better than if it’s just the physician.

Physician leadership lesson 3: Train in such a way that you become accustomed to innovating.  Adapt and overcome!!physician leadership - adapt and overcome

As a first year medical student, I quickly realized that trying to memorize every little detail and factoid for every test would be impossible.  Moreover, that wouldn’t achieve my goal of learning how to approach the patient pathophysiologically.  That’s not to say that I didn’t study or that I blew off material for tests.  Far from it!

I had many classmates (and so did you) who memorized facts for the tests and then promptly forgot them in the next module.  So, I studied in a systematic fashion so I could learn how to think mechanistically about clinical disease.  I knew that I couldn’t possibly memorize enough facts to anticipate every disease variant out there.  It was important for me to study systems.  I needed to train for unexpected outcomes.

You’ll definitely encounter challenges you hadn’t anticipated.  Physician leadership is built on these unexpected challenges.  As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Study and train in such a way that you can adapt to new situations.  Learn to think mechanistically instead of linearly.  Learn how to adapt and overcome!

Physician leadership lesson 4: Good leaders learn from mistakes and create new paths from the lessons learned.

physician leadership lesson - learn from mistakesPhysician leadership skills are forged in the fire of tragic circumstances.  The challenges we face give us the experience and strength to face the next one.  

Mistakes are inevitable.  They’re not to be feared!  You should embrace them!  I don’t mean that deliberately failing is a good strategy.  What I mean is that it’s important to take those mistakes and figure out how to avoid them in the future.  Also, use those lessons to improve your practices so you make fewer mistakes going forward.

It’s better to learn from the mistakes of others than your own.  If you can take someone else’s mistake and use that to prevent one of your future mistakes, that’s a huge victory.  Teach your team members to do the same.  When a team member makes a mistake, don’t just chastise them for it.  Train them, coach them, and encourage them with solutions for improving the next time.

Physician leadership lesson 5: Saying “no” to something now doesn’t mean saying “no” forever.

It’s hard to say no to things, especially when they’re things we care about.  Maybe you have a dream or a big idea, and it just won’t work out right now for some reason. That could be because of finances, lack of time, inadequate skills, or other reasons.  Maybe it’s just not the right time right now.  That doesn’t have to mean “no” forever!

As a leader, you’ve got to know when you need to press ahead when it looks hopeless.  But, you also have to recognize when it’s time to give up the current plan and change direction.  That’s a really tough balancing act.  It comes with experience, but it’s not easy.

So, how do you navigate that choice?  “In the multitude of counselors, there is safety.”  Seek advice from your team, your partners, your mentors, your family, and make a decision.  You may not know if it’s the right decision until you take the leap.  That’s ok!  Trust your instincts, and go for it!

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Final Thoughts

The hospitals and healthcare organizations of America are desperate for physician leaders.  You probably have most of the skills you need to be a leader.  You might need some experience, or some training, but there’s nothing stopping you!  If you’re not sure where to start, ask a trusted mentor or friend what you need to do to prepare yourself for a leadership role.  Just go for it!  Your team, your company, and your country need you!

Further Reading


Please leave a comment below!  What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?


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