The Ex-Doctor's Diary: Lessons in Leadership

May 1, 2006

Michelle Mudge-Riley, DO, on the lessons of leadership.


I always stop by the New Arrivals table at my local bookstore when I walk by. I am drawn to the fresh, crisp pages and glossy covers of books that have not yet been opened.

Lately I’ve been picking up books on leadership. I’ve been amazed to discover how many of these books are listed as “staff favorites” or “hot sellers.” I think this means a lot of people want to know how to be leaders.

I know I do.

When I entered my health administration graduate program, the director told me he was expecting me to be a leader in my class. I nodded in full agreement, somehow knowing this was important. I also recently learned that this year’s annual meeting of the American College of Healthcare Executives is titled, “Congress on Healthcare Leadership.”

But what does it mean to be a leader? What qualities make up a leader? Buzzwords like “strong, calm, aggressive, consistent, professional, collected, risk-taker, passionate, and team-player” abound. My husband has those qualities. So does my 4-year-old niece. Pretty much everyone has one or two of those qualities.

Does being a leader simply constitute the classic definition of overseeing a number of people, giving them orders, and having those orders successfully executed? Or does it mean sitting back and letting someone else take credit for a job well done?

Does being a leader stem from possessing an Ivy League education? Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka International, a company that invests in “social entrepreneurs,” was named by U.S. News & World Report one of America’s top 25 leaders. His degrees are from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College after six months and never earned his degree. Yet he founded Pixar Animation Studios and is the CEO of Apple Computer.

Does outward appearance convince people to call someone a leader? When millions of U.S. viewers tuned into the first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960, they observed an attractive young man next to a pale man with traces of stubble on his face. People who listened to that debate on the radio declared Richard Nixon the winner. Those who saw it on T.V. went for John F. Kennedy.

Does being a leader mean being a visionary? With his dreams of racial equality and justice, Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered a leader. But Joseph Stalin, who transformed his country from a peasant society into a major world industrial power, killing thousands of his own population in the process, also had a vision.

I want to know how I should go about learning leadership, what qualities I should cultivate, and whom I should emulate or look to as I strive to be a leader. I think this is important because I have heard the word “physician” and “physician executive” used interchangeably with “leader” a lot over the past few years.

I wonder if a leader can even be defined - perhaps leadership is just sensed, like security or friendship. The Japanese have the term, “kaizen,” which means continual improvement. It connotates a never-ending quest to do better. I believe this means that a set definition of a leader in one circumstance might change in another. At this moment I think a leader is someone who knows his values, can communicate those values effectively, and can defend those values when challenged. Maintaining and conveying honesty and authenticity give a leader the ability to motivate other individuals toward a shared goal. Retaining the ability to listen to others and respond to feedback outside one’s comfort zone and demonstrating competency over a certain task earned through education, experience, or both, conveys leadership.

What do you think?

Michelle Mudge-Riley, DO, is currently a student in the Masters of Health Administration program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She graduated from Des Moines University Osteopathic Medical School in 2003. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of Physicians Practice.