7 tips on becoming a better physician leader

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MD
Published January 25, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Although collaborative care is becoming the standard, even highly skilled healthcare teams need leadership.

  • Some physicians are natural leaders, whereas others aren’t.

  • Strong physician leaders are gracious, knowledgeable, communicative, supportive, and transformative.

Collaborative care teams are becoming standard. However, collaboration does not render clinical leadership roles obsolete or unnecessary. Optimal patient care depends on leadership.

For some physicians, leadership roles come naturally or have been primed by mentorship and experience. Other doctors may benefit from external resources. Organizations such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) offer guidance. 

Core competencies

A good physician leader must be clinically skilled. A doctor must have robust knowledge of evidence-based medicine and demonstrate compassionate patient care. Good physicians continually re-evaluate patient care and incorporate new evidence in their treatment plans. They also heed cost-conscious measures and facilitate patient safety. In terms of professionalism, a strict adherence to ethical care is a must. Good physicians also are skilled communicators with patients and other members of the healthcare team. Lastly, a good physician is skilled with informatics and technology.

Related: Two years in: COVID-19 and the world’s youngest generation of doctors

New skills

With advances in medical science and technology, new skill sets are constantly emerging. A good physician leader must keep pace with these advances, according to the AAPL.

"Physicians must develop skills in newer areas such as systems theory and analysis, use of information technology, and enhanced knowledge of the continuum of care."

American Association for Physician Leadership

“Physician leaders find that they need new skills to engage with the complex questions related to clinical integration, performance metrics, quality, safety, business measures, and population health. In addition to the standard physician core competencies, physicians must develop skills in newer areas such as systems theory and analysis, use of information technology, and enhanced knowledge of the continuum of care,” according to the AAPL website.

Although education and training in these skills should begin in medical school, professional development can begin at any stage. For instance, practicing physicians can pursue an MBA or MHA, as well as join relevant professional organizations. Of note, the American College of Physicians offers a Certificate in Physician Leadership Program.

Related: How clinicians can counteract medical misinformation

Clear communication

Strong leaders are strong communicators. Physician leaders should clearly convey responsibilities and elicit feedback and input from other members of a team, who have expertise in varied realms.

According to the AMA, physician leaders should “encourage open discussion of ethical and clinical concerns and foster a team culture in which each member’s opinion is heard and considered and team members share accountability for decisions and outcomes.”

With respect to patients, strong physician leaders should communicate appropriately with the patients and families, respecting relationships between patients and other members of the team.

Related: What to do when your patient doesn't trust you

Foster collaboration

A good physician leader secures resources that bolster collaborative and exemplary care by their team. These resources could include educational opportunities and additional training to build teamwork. Great leaders should also help institutions identify and rectify barriers to collaboration.


Every physician leader should support core values such as honesty, discipline, creativity, humility, and curiosity, as well as motivation for continued improvement.

Among healthcare teams, creativity supports cohesion and innovation. Failed attempts at improvement and negative outcomes do not weaken the team but serve as learning opportunities, according to the AMA.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership, as opposed to transactional leadership, is encouraged. Transformational leaders are invested in relationships and inspire others via charisma, clear visions, and personal advice. Transactional leaders focus only on correction when a team member deviates from standard of care.

In addition to positive weekly meetings, brief huddles that last 5 or 10 minutes can serve as a tool in transformational leadership.

Related: How doctors can address health inequity through SDOH

Conflict resolution

A skilled physician leader should be adept at managing conflicts or issues that arise. Conflict resolution may require accessing institutional resources.

According to an AMA Opinion, “Promote the development and use of institutional policies and procedures, such as an institutional ethics committee or similar resource, to address constructively conflicts within teams that adversely affect patient care.”

What does this mean for you?

To treat patients effectively and compassionately, a physician depends on a collaborative team. In turn, this team depends on physician leadership. Fortunately, there are strategies to strengthen this leadership role. Critical physician leadership skills include strong core clinical competencies, cultivating new skills, communicating clearly, fostering collaboration, inspiring others, embodying transformational (not transactional) leadership, and conflict resolution.


  1. 4 tips to be a better physician leader. AMA.

  2. Collaborative Care. AMA.

  3. Developing Skills that Turn Physicians into Strong Leaders in a Rapidly Changing Healthcare Environment. AAPL.

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