Face it, doctors are bad leaders


As physicians, we are seen as leaders whether we like it or not. And as such, we are charged with modeling greatness. But do we? Our training, while teaching us to be experts and authorities, does not teach us how to be leaders. However, somehow we get out into practice and are automatically seen as leaders, and thrown into positions that require a skill that we don’t have. And we don’t know that we don’t know that we don’t have it!

What defines leadership? Leadership can be defined by many principles including influence, change, character, service and development. However, the principles of leadership have a common theme: Leadership is about being with people rather than being above them. This is where I believe our training has failed us.

For most of us, our training conditioned us to think that because we know, more we are leaders. We were taught that expertise equals authority, and increasing our authority is the automatic path to leadership. Our training mostly focused on continuing professional development and neglected the importance of personal development, an essential component of leadership development. Instead, being an authority became confused with being a leader.

Furthermore, as physicians we are trained to take action — to do. “Doing” has been very effective for most of us in our careers. The more we do, the better we are, the more accolades we receive. Our pay, our prestige and even some awards are predicated on how much we do. Yet, we find that focusing only on doing in leadership is met with limited effectiveness and even resistance. This is because effective leadership requires more than doing; leadership comes with a way of being. Let’s face it, physicians are not great at simply being. I’m not saying all physicians are bad leaders. What I am saying is that while we are automatically seen as leaders, we are not automatically effective leaders.

Why does this even matter?

When we begin to examine the cause of physician burnout, we can see that ineffective leadership is one of those causes. That is not to say leaders are to blame necessarily for all burned out doctors. However, bad leaders will most certainly burnout their team if they are not aware and willing to deal with their ineffectiveness. One major thing to consider as a source of this ineffectiveness is that often leaders themselves are burned out too. Often physician leaders are carrying multiple roles and responsibilities (some of them unpaid). Additionally, many physician leaders maintain their clinical responsibilities in conjunction with their leadership roles. So, you see, burned-out leadership is a set up for a burned-out team.

So what is there to do?

The first thing to do is to understand the nature of burnout as it relates to leadership and the healthcare organization itself. Understanding that burnout is not a problem to be solved, but an insidious perplexity that infects and spreads throughout its host organization, creating chronic breakdown (in culture). The most impactful way to make a long-term difference with burnout inside of an organization is to address its origin from the top down. Executives and physician leaders need to be educated and empowered as much as do front-line physicians.

Furthermore, physician leaders need to be willing to engage in more personal and leadership development so that they can acquire (or in some cases simply be reminded) of the qualities and skills that make leaders effective, and then map it onto their own personal style. Physician burnout prevention and leadership training are an efficient and efficient beginning to leadership learning, however personal executive coaching can greatly accelerate progress and effectiveness and is more personalized to the physician being coached. Personal executive coaching gets to the underlying causes of burnout individually and beyond the workplace, further enhancing and deepening the ultimate effectiveness for the physician leader. Just like with the body, as the underlying disease is corrected, the rest of the system can begin to heal itself. When executives and physician leaders address their own burnout, they will be able to then deal with what needs to be put in place for their team to do the same. Similarly, when they address the cause of the current ineffectiveness in how they are leading, they can lead doctors out of burnout instead of into it.

Physicians are, in fact, leaders. And given the rate at which our industry (and our country for that matter) is changing, burnout is bound to get worse before it gets better. As such, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to make sure that we utilize the tools and resources we have to cultivate ourselves in our various leadership roles so that we are empowering rather than abusing each other.

Maiysha Clairborne is an integrative medicine physician and can be reached at The Stress Free Mom MD.  She is the author of The Wellness Blueprint: The Complete Mind/Body Approach to Reclaiming Your Health & Wellness

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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