4 Expectations of Physician Leaders

The world of healthcare has moved from simple, to complicated, to complex, requiring leaders who work together, collaborate, and compromise to solve problems. For many physicians, the problem is that they’ve never received leadership training. Most of their training is around taking individual tests and written or oral exams. These aren’t team tests, and they’re never given any kind of training on how to work together as a team, process information as a group, or collaborate with others. The world of healthcare needs doctors to step up, but the challenge remains that many do not want to, and those who do haven’t had the training.

They know that change needs to occur for improvement to take place, and they are willing to drive that change, but how? Those physicians are stuck in the middle of the dilemma, wanting to help but not knowing where to start. One of the best ways to demystify physician leadership is to identify expectations of leaders. Once physicians see what will be expected of them, they will understand that leadership takes work, but it’s far less daunting to learning to diagnose illness.

Here are four expectations that will be placed on physician leaders in this new world.

Expectation #1: Performance

Wherever you work, you are part of a system. The leadership of that system need to agree on what matters to the system. What is important? What do we stand for?

These begin to define how we will measure the performance of the organization. Then we must decide on the right values and expectations for those who work there and determine what the standards are and how to measure them. Promising ideas and intentions are fine, but you can only improve what you measure.

The process of agreeing on what matters often starts with identifying your values. Leaders must ask, “What is our mission, and where do we need to go?”

Then, they can evaluate what they must do to get there.

Doctors need to be dedicated to patients, efficient, and safe so they can come up with reasonable expectations. That’s a process the leadership must carry out. It should be inclusive of the target, the subjects, and the physicians. They should at least have some direct contact with these groups or a survey where they are heard.

Decide what you are going to measure, and then apply those, measure them, and monitor them. While organizations will determine their prioritized measures, they may include areas of clinical quality, service, access, professionalism, and commitments to affordability and efficiency, and the standard business parameters like growth.

The first time you do this, you should clearly communicate it’s a learning cycle. You have put measurements in place, will monitor what you learn, and find ways to improve. It’s an integrative process and a circle of continuous learning and improvement.

Expectation #2: Communication

The second expectation of leaders is communication, which is intrinsically linked to credibility. In many ways, leadership is communication. Leaders are here to create a continuous conversation of learning, acknowledgment, and challenge to reinforce the process of team and individual continuous learning together.

Credibility is based on a leader’s ability to influence others. However, the ability to influence others makes you only partially credible. True credibility also demands that you demonstrate your willingness and ability to be influenced—to listen.

Too many people believe they have enough genius and confidence to forgo listening, which is incredibly insufficient. This is where genuine humility becomes important.

If you don’t understand that others have an enormous contribution to make with their knowledge, insight, and experience, then you’re missing out on so much.

Communicating effectively often requires repeating and reinforcing messages. Not only that, it’s more longitudinal than episodic, meaning the values comes over time.

Expectation #3: Learning

Learning is a fundamental leadership expectation. To respond to the magnitude and difficulties of change, leaders must value the continuous process of open learning.

Leaders must create models for this, both for yourself and for those who follow you, and actively participate, demonstrating that you not only require learning but are committed.

This can be accomplished through book clubs, lectures, off-sites, blogs, and group learning, and by convening diverse types of groups to learn from one another.

Over time in an organization, a formal leadership structure develops based on departmental, facility, regional, or other structural features, and there is both formality of structure and function, and some levels of hierarchy and reporting.

But as leaders commit to understanding problems and people more clearly, we are also aware of a more informal leadership structure based on credibility, influence, and trust.

These are the trusted colleagues whose opinions and feedback are always sought by the everyday work teams. This informal group is incredibly important, so creating a process to have them spend time with formal leaders is valuable.

If you’re having trouble narrowing down your list of informal leaders, here’s an idea: bring your formal leaders together and generate a list of informal leaders who are well understood to be the most trusted voices and sought-after opinions in the group.

Once the lengthy list of informal leaders is created, it’s time for a prioritizing exercise. Give each of the formal leaders five sticky dots and have them apply those dots to the names of the informal leaders they believe has the greatest trust and credibility.

The next step is to organize each group informally to have some spokespeople and partners to select topics, define venues, and convene the group for a gathering.

We model learning by what we do and try to do. If we don’t model it, then we’ll never have people believe in it. You must set the example.

Expectation #4: Resolve

As a leader, you must have resolve and remain strong in the face of difficulties.

Resolve and passion are closely related. The first side of passion is enthusiastic belief. In other words, you’re there because you want to be, and you believe in what you do.

The other side of passion is resolve. After you’ve been kicked around a couple of times, you must be able to access that enthusiastic belief. Where is that enthusiastic belief?

This is resolve. It can carry a leader through the most trying problems, and it is most effective when it is rooted in our belief system and our sense of personal mission.

Ultimately, within each of us must be the resolve.

Resolve is not about demanding work and dedication. Those are the table stakes. It’s a relentless focus on the reality and the mission.

The future is going to be tough, but it is in our hands. We have the ability and talent to transform health care and restore the American dream for future generations. Our patients, families, and communities are depending on us.

Will you step up and be the physician leader our system needs you to be?

For more advice on becoming a physician leader in the changing world of healthcare, you can find Healer, Leader, Partner on Amazon.

Dr. Jack Cochran is repeatedly named on Modern Healthcare’s list of influential physician executives, and has worked extensively with national health policy development, including working with The White House and United States Congress. He speaks globally about integrated care, innovation, quality improvement, and physician leadership.  Invite him to keynote your next event.