Accidental Leaders

by Helane Fronek, MD, FACP, FACPh

Years ago, I mistakenly believed that providing excellent medical care to patients was my only role. My employees were unengaged, communication faltered and office morale plummeted as I failed to involve my team and appropriately address certain issues.

I didn’t realize that we are also leaders. We may not have thought we were signing up for that when we applied to our professional school, but the truth is that we are often expected to lead—in our practices, families and communities. Unfortunately, medical education doesn’t teach those skills. Our training rewards individual medical competence and an almost selfless devotion to our work—not much grist for leadership there.

Five competencies of effective leadership

Kouzes and Posner, in their classic work, The Leadership Challenge, define five competencies of effective leadership:

  1. Challenging the process in order to grow and innovate
  2. Inspiring a shared vision
  3. Enabling others to act
  4. Modeling the way
  5. Encouraging the heart by regularly recognizing individual and team accomplishments

How can we use these ideas to become better leaders?

We begin by reflecting on what is important to us. Do we want to be known for compassionate care? Cutting-edge medicine? Integration of complementary medical philosophies and techniques? Why is that important? Do we believe in the self-healing power of the human body? Being the first to offer new and innovative treatments in our community? Providing tested and reliable approaches to our patients’ conditions? We then present our intentions to staff and colleagues and ask for their ideas, suggestions and beliefs. Together, we create a clear vision that all can commit to.

What needs to change in order to make this vision reality?

Leaders critically challenge the status quo in service of improvement or readiness for future challenges. How can we do things better, more efficiently, promote greater engagement? By determining the skills and interests of our staff and colleagues, we can encourage them to use the abilities they possess and to grow by developing new competencies.

As wise leaders, we seek honest feedback on our own behavior. Is it congruent with our stated values? Does it reflect both confidence as well as openness to change and to the opinions of others? We seek help to hone new skills. Coaches, leadership programs, online courses and assessments can assist us in understanding and refining our leadership style. Finally, we acknowledge the contributions of our team—both individuals and the group as a whole. We inspire more of the behaviors we reward. Recognizing effort and good work builds team spirit and commitment to shared goals.

Each step requires reflection, intention and action. If we are to become the leaders to effectively guide our practices and organizations through the evolving future of health care, we need to approach leadership as we did our medical competencies, accept its increasing importance in our careers and our lives, and take action to acquire these valuable competencies. After all, don’t we want health care providers leading the future of health care?