Traits of a Strong Medical Leader—How to Make the Transition

Good medical and management skills are needed to align the needs and demands of both hospitals and physicians. Both hospitals and physicians possess effective skills and strengths. However, the potential conflict between the two can lead to dangerous polarization.  

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Hospital administrators have a traditional realm of authority, which they use to manage the business of healthcare. For example, they have organizational and strategic planning skills, have access to capital markets, have implemented electronic medical records to coordinate data, and possess the administrative skills needed to operate an organization.

Physicians, on the other hand, have authority in treatment and the practice of care delivery and services. They have the medical training and a license to treat patients and prescribe medicine to meet their oaths. And yet, they have their choice of employment and want to have a positive influence in those places where they work.

Many physicians begin to view medicine more broadly, not only encompassing patient care,  but also how medical care is delivered to broad populations. This was my journey, which led me to the intersection of administration and physician. The aspiring medical leader needs to understand what he or she can offer to help the healthcare organization transform into something more powerful. A leader’s role is to set goals that reflect a vision of the future, to create an inclusive plan to achieve that goal and ensure all stakeholders are working together.

Attributes of a Successful Medical Leader

Physicians in practice are evaluated on three attributes: knowledge, skills and judgment. These attributes are also necessary to be a successful medical leader, only in a different dimension. The following are the attributes I have found valuable over 20 years as a physician leader, health system administrator and now as a physician coach:


You don’t need to have an MBA, but it’s very helpful to have a basic introduction to core administrative disciplines: Marketing, finance, operations (systems of care) and human resources.


Important skills for leaders include:

  • Listening
  • Affecting compromise
  • Understanding the sensibilities of physicians and administrators who may have different priorities
  • Visualizing the best outcome with an adversary
  • Understanding how to speak and interpret both “Physician” and “Administrative” language
  • Master meeting management: Time management, discussion facilitation and outcome-based focus


  • Know yourself and be honest about your skills
  • Control your temper. Once out of your mouth, a demeaning remark or insult will live in “infamy”
  • Visualize the medical system as a whole, not as a winner-take-all contest
  • Understand both the physician and the administrative side of the equation
  • Understand your fellow physicians—there is wide diversity
  • Be collaborative. Collaboration is not about winning
  • Avoid ultimatums. Ultimatums are insulting and destroy any hope of creating a better solution

How does a physician acquire these attributes?

  • Talk to an existing medical leader you admire and who you trust to be honest and hold your confidence. Ask them:
  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • Do you think I could make a good physician leader?
  • Seek out an institutional mentor (and trust your gut on who this is)

How do I develop the necessary knowledge?

  • Seek training. Many organizations offer a basic introduction to administrative and business skills for physicians. Some may also offer CME credit
  • Volunteer to audit an administrative committee, such as finance or HR
  • Volunteer to be a department chair or vice chair (most departments are in desperate need for help)
  • Volunteer to be on your department’s peer review committee
  • Establish and keep in touch with your medical administrator for funds for educational seminars
  • Recruit an internal mentor (formal or informal) who can give non-critical feedback
  • Seek out a mentor from outside the organization for issues you may not feel safe sharing internally

How do I develop the necessary skills and judgment?

  • Practice, observe and ask:
  • Practice in the sheltered environment of your medical or surgical department
  • Observe those leaders who you admire, both medical and administrative
  • Ask your mentor (formal or otherwise) for constructive feedback
  • Implement the observations and the feedback you’ve received, and continue improving

We Can Help

Are you interested in becoming a medical leader? Your VITAL WorkLife Well Being Resources can help, with peer coaching, leadership development and mentoring for the purpose of helping you develop the skills necessary to become a strong medical leader. Contact us at 877.731.3949 to access your resources today.

Tagged with → physician peer coachingPeer Coachinghealthcare leadersMedical Professionals


Dan Whitlock, MD, MBA

Dan Whitlock, MD, MBA, was vice president of medical affairs at a large health system in Minnesota, where he partnered with VITAL WorkLife™ to implement a supportive solution for medical staff physicians and their families. After retiring, Dr. Whitlock worked with hospital and health system administrations and medical staffs in Asia, the Middle East and Europe regarding quality, patient safety and medical staff processes as a consultant with an international accreditation organization. Dr. Whitlock received his medical degree from the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. He completed his residency at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a fellowship in pediatric nephrology at the University of California in San Francisco. Dr. Whitlock received an MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Business. Dr. Whitlock is a physician consultant and member of the Advisory Team for VITAL WorkLife, a national behavioral consulting company with providers in every major city and wide-ranging expertise in every aspect of behavioral health. VITAL WorkLife is the only company today providing healthcare organizations and practitioners easy access to the help they need. Dedicated teams of experienced medical and behavioral health professionals understand the unique needs of doctors and their families, and deliver the services needed to help overcome work and life challenges.