What Makes a Great Physician Leader? 10 Lessons from a Surgeon General

physician leader

It’s hard to step out of clinical medicine and into an executive or administrator role.  But, the need for a good physician leader starts much lower down the leadership chain.

As a physician, you are already in a leadership role, whether you wish to be or not.  Your staff, patients, and even your family look to you for guidance and support.  They will follow your authority, so you need to prove yourself worthy of that trust.  That all starts with self-knowledge and preparedness.

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A true physician leader

Vice Admiral Forrest Faison served the U.S. Navy for 39 years, including a four year tour as its 38th Surgeon General.  As a leader in both peacetime and wartime, he learned many valuable leadership lessons along the way.

He came to join us for episode 2 of The Scope of Practice Podcast to share some of his wisdom from a career as a physician leader.

1. Choosing clinical medicine vs. executive medicine

Once you’ve been through a decade of medical training, it’s hard to trade your white coat for a charcoal grey suit.  However, it’s worth noting that hospitals run by a physician leader have superior ratings.  Those hospitals are safer, more profitable, and have higher patient satisfaction scores on average.

Before you consider the transition into full-time executive medicine, you should consider whether it’s worth it.  Depending on the structure of your clinical practice compensation structure, you may take a pay cut.  The biggest change is that you’ll see fewer or perhaps no patients.

In that setting, it can be hard to think of oneself as a physician.  But, you are still a physician!  No one can take that away from you!  Being a strong physician will ultimately make you a better leader.

2. Competence is critical to have credibility as a physician leaderleadership

No one will take you seriously if you aren’t a high-quality clinician.  Why would they trust you to lead physicians if you aren’t even a good physician yourself?  It’s vitally important for you to hone your craft before seeking leadership roles.  Be the best physician you can be.  Take extra training, see more patients, read more, study harder, and just work to be the best.

First of all, it’s what our patients deserve from us.  Second, it’ll establish your credibility and people will naturally tend to accept your authority as a leader.

3. You’re only as good as your presence

Take pride in your appearance.  This seems like a fairly obvious thing to think about, but too many physicians overlook it.  When was the last time you dry cleaned your white coat?  Take a close look at it.  Is it yellow (or even brown)?  Have your white coat cleaned and pressed.  Dress professionally and maintain a sense of good grooming and hygiene.

When you speak, speak with confidence and authority.  This is different than cockiness.  If you’re hesitant or unsure of yourself, people will sense it, and it will undermine your credibility.  If you’re overconfident and condescending, people will ignore you or decline to acknowledge your authority.  You have to find the right balance.

This is a good opportunity to ask for feedback from your patients and staff.  Ask them to tell you frankly how you come across to them.  If you’re timid or overbearing, you need them to tell you that (preferably in a tactful way).  That’s the only way you’ll ever improve in this area.

Related article: Building a sterling reputation

teamwork4. A good physician leader always has a good team backing him up

No one is an island.  A leader, by definition, has followers.  I prefer to think of them as team members.  I see my staff and I as a united team with a singular mission.  You need to mold your team, cultivate a dynamic team culture, and pour your heart into them.

You can’t possibly do your job by yourself.  It takes a great team to complete any mission.  Build them up and celebrate their successes.  Let their triumphs become the team’s triumphs, and have everyone celebrate them together.  I can always tell the quality of a leader by how their team members talk about them when they’re not listening.

You don’t have to spend time cultivating your own reputation.  Build up your team, and they will return the favor.  You serve yourself best when you serve others first.  That’s the most important rule of servant leadership.

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5. Don’t fear turnover – embrace it!

A high turnover workplace is often a sign of an unhealthy culture.  As a general rule, it’s better to have low annual turnover and thus higher employee retention.  However, certain industries such as government institutions and the military may experience higher than normal turnover by the nature of the industry.  In such cases, it’s valuable to utilize the “fresh perspectives” brought in by new people to help adapt your organization and find ways to make it better.

Whenever you hire a new person, the first thing to do is inculcate your company’s culture and values in them.  But, you should be prepared to listen to their new ideas on how to do things differently.  As leaders, we often find ourselves getting stuck in a particular mode of thinking, and that can cause stagnation.  Embrace the change that comes with new people and use that to push your company to constantly seek ways to improve.

6. Motivating your team is part of the job as a physician leader

The strongest personality in the room tends to set the tone for the room.  What I mean is, your team will naturally tend to adopt your attitude if you are a strong leader.  If you like to gossip and spread chaos and dissent, your team will follow suit.  If you show people that you’re a team player, that you demand excellence, and that you’re proud of your work, they’re more likely to do the same.

How are you motivating your team?  There are three main ways to do this (as a general rule):

  1. Pay them: If your team isn’t being paid well, they’ll be stressed about how to take care of their family.  That doesn’t lead to a lot of motivation at work.  Set realistic expectations about appropriate pay levels, but pay your team a decent salary.
  2. Promote them: People want to advance, to do more, to be better.  Offer your team members opportunities to advance and grow in your organization.
  3. Recognize them: This is probably the most important one.  People tend to leave jobs not over money, but over feeling a lack of appreciation or purpose.  Find ways to celebrate your team members, and do it publicly and often.

7. A good physician leader sets high expectations

high expectations

Some people are just hard to motivate, right?  As you read this, you can probably already think of 1 or 2 team members that just aren’t striving for excellence.  They’re doing “just enough to get the job done.”  If you’re a physician leader, you have to set high expectations.  Moreover, you have to insist that people meet those expectations.

Don’t lower expectations to the lowest common denominator.  And, don’t shy away from awkward conversations that involve a team member not meeting them.  If someone’s not meeting your standard of excellence, it just takes one bad day for a patient to get hurt. Set those expectations, then see that people meet them.

8. If you want to be a physician leader, you need to prepare

If you want to be able to seize an opportunity when it comes your way, you need to have spent time preparing for it.

  • Take on committee assignments.
  • Seek new leadership opportunities.
  • Ask mentors to guide you.
  • Read books and listen to learned minds on leadership principles.

Then, when the opportunity arises, you’ll stand out as the natural choice.  When I’m looking for someone to take on an assignment or fill a role, I’ve usually already got the person in mind.  That’s not because I play favorites.  It’s because there’s someone who has already shown their competence and motivation for their current role, and I’m more likely to trust them with the next opportunity.

9. Be a physician leader only for the right reasons

It’s not worth being a leader for the title, the paycheck, the perks, or any of the “benefits.”  The truth is: leadership is hard.  90% of leadership is dealing with the hard stuff that no one else wants to tackle.

You need to approach leadership from the standpoint of service.  You have to believe that because of your service, the organization can grow, change, or do better.  If you seek leadership roles for accolades or money, you’ll be disappointed and you’ll destroy your company.

I believe in servant leadership.

Only by serving others first do we serve ourselves.  Seek to build others up.  When the team wins, you win too.

10. Blossom where you’re planted

Just because you’re not in the role you always imagined doesn’t mean that you can’t get something out of it.  Every experience you have can teach you something that prepares you for a future role.  As I said before, if you prove yourself trustworthy with a small thing, I’m more likely to trust you with a big thing.  Take the role you’ve been given, do it with excellence, and even exceed expectations.  A good leader will notice that and give you additional opportunities.  Don’t miss the opportunity to serve and to grow just because it’s “not where you want to be right now.”

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Final Thoughts

Not everyone is destined to be a physician leader in an executive or managerial role.  However, I firmly believe that all physicians are leaders and should embody these leadership principles.  As a physician, you set the tone for your clinic, your hospital, and your company.  People will naturally want to follow you because you are in a natural position of authority.

What are you doing to grow as a leader?  Do you know what you want to be doing in 3 years?  5 years?  10 years?  What are you doing about it?  Take stock of your position and determine what you need to do to be where you want to be in the future.

Further Reading

Please leave a comment below and share the greatest leadership advice you’ve ever received. 

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