The Skills Physician Leaders Need Today

Doctor talking to other doctors and nurses at meeting

Physician leaders who join the two-week Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers program—usually those at the chief or medical director level—do so to hone the skills required for excelling at the next stage of medicine: the art of organizational business, increased financial literacy, and managerial skills.

Yet, they walk away with those skills and more, explains the Program Director, Ted J. Witherell, MA, faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The course stands out due to its immersive nature—physician leaders stay at a hotel for the length of the course and form a tight network of peers—and because it provides physicians with a lot of the learning that they never get elsewhere yet need as their careers advance.

The Intersection of Leadership and Management Skills

“As physicians, we are never taught leadership,” Witherell says, adding that almost every leader in health care is wrestling with challenges, such as cost issues that they must be equipped to handle. But, he says that the course also teaches “human skills”—how to hold a difficult conversation and how to problem-solve on a team in a post-pandemic world, and these might be the most important aspects of leadership.

“Strategy is something we teach, but strategy doesn’t sit in a vacuum,” Witherell says. “Your strategy sits next to operational management. If I have operational management, financial management, strategy, and people skills with some maturity, then it will make it possible for me to be proactive.”

Being proactive is particularly paramount today, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Witherell. The pandemic marked a time of acute crisis and called for leaders in medicine to respond in unprecedented ways urgently with clear direction. Witherell notes that Mass General Brigham opened up a 1,000-bed field hospital in seven days—a healthcare system where, previously, “it was a two-year-long process to decide on which surgical gloves to get.”

But four years later, medicine can’t continue to operate in this way. “We’re living at a pace that is not sustainable,” Witherell says, noting high rates of burnout among healthcare professionals and a struggle to adapt pandemic medicine—command centers and an all-hands-on-deck mentality—to a post-pandemic world.

The Importance of “Human Skills” in Sustained Crisis

“Today’s world calls for a different kind of leadership than what we’ve been doing,” Witherell says, “[and] the most vital skills that matter in a sustained crisis are the human skills.”

Operating in more of a sustained crisis requires that leaders learn about money and how businesses are organized, of course. But it also calls for perspective-taking, conflict management, difficult conversations, emotional intelligence, and experimentation—all of which help physician leaders look ahead.

“On one hand, the health care model is one of diagnose and then treat, and that makes a lot of sense on all kinds of levels, metaphorically and physically, and we need to sort of ‘push the horizon out’ in terms of what we can see, and not just look at what’s in front of us and diagnose what’s going on, but look ahead.”

The language that gets called up a lot regarding today’s world is a managerial acronym called VUCA, Witherell says: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. “No longer does a paradigm of the leader being the one who knows the best and knows it all exist, and in many ways, that’s how physicians have been sort of brought up.”

Learning to lead in a team setting with good judgment and confidence in using strategies such as experimentation and effective communication can help physician leaders move forward effectively in a constantly changing world.

There’s a notion in the book The Leadership Pipelineby Ram Charan about turning a bend in your career. “Charan talks about how whenever anyone moves up in an organization, it’s like coming to a bend in a pipe. When you go around that bend, you can see down the rest of the pipe [to] things you couldn’t see before,” says Witherell. “At every level of leadership, things change.”

The Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers program prepares physicians for those changes.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Leadership Development for Physicians in Academic Health Centers, an intensive two-week program specifically designed for medical directors and division chiefs at teaching hospitals.