Serving as a physician leader

November 6, 2020
Renee Lockey, MD

Four tips for practicing physicians.

Driven and ambitious, I embarked on a career in medicine with great enthusiasm, prepared to give this pursuit the time and energy required to succeed. As a well-balanced young physician in my 20s, I was proudly involved in competitive sports, church, and a number of other endeavors that I intended to keep engaged with.

Over the course of medical school, and then residency, what I observed about my profession disturbed me.

Physicians spent long hours in both the office and the hospital, and rarely seemed to have much time left over for their families or outside pursuits. It was rare to encounter a physician that could prioritize their families and their health or find meaning in anything other than their work. Despite my best intentions to be an exception, I quickly became as burned out and stretched thin as those around me. While I love the practice of medicine, and in particular, my field of obstetrics and gynecology, I grew bitter about my dwindling life outside of work.

About the time I was wearing thin, one of my practice partners left our group to become an OB hospitalist. As she described to me the lifestyle she hoped to obtain with the switch, I knew it was a path that I, too, should seriously consider.

After some soul-searching, I decided to take the leap, and what I found on the other side was exactly what I hoped for–control over my personal life and time. My hours at the hospital could now be focused on patient care, without the productivity pressures and administrative hassles. And yet, professional opportunities still beckoned. Within two months of my career change I was asked to be the site director of a newly formed program. I balked, questioning whether taking on a leadership role constituted self-sabotage. Would maintaining balance still be possible?

Leadership, I believe, means exercising your values in every encounter and in each role you play. All my life I have led. Whether on a mission trip or as captain of a mountain bike race team, I’ve welcomed opportunities to lead others with intention and by example. Ironically though, I never aspired to lead anything in medicine. When I reluctantly accepted the role, I knew I needed to shift my perspective. I had to see it as an opportunity to serve.

For other physicians contemplating leadership roles, a few personal observations may help smooth the path to physician leader:

First, take an honest inventory of your personal goals. Does the mission of the role you are considering align with your own core values and professional aspirations? Does it allow you to continue to prioritize the people and passions in your life that matter most? Will it personally challenge you in ways you hope to grow?

Second, identify your strengths and weaknesses by seeking the input of others. The most influential leaders are humble, teachable, and open to feedback. Whether your weaknesses are in critical care, communication, or integrating with private physicians, site directors should seek out coaching to fill gaps in their training or skill sets in order to hit the ground running on day one.

Third, leaders should acknowledge what it took to get to this point and fully embrace their role. Recognizing your potential and embracing your role as a leader will help inspire others to do their very best under potentially stressful circumstances. I feel fortunate to work for an employer that prioritizes physician growth through support such as a clinical physician leadership academy, and national clinical leadership meetings where on-site clinical leaders participate in group sessions covering topics ranging from negotiation and conflict management, to clinician engagement. Even if these resources aren’t readily available at your own site, there are plenty of physician leadership courses online that can boost confidence and strengthen your performance under pressure.

Fourth, new leaders should make an effort to find good mentors. Seek opportunities to be developed by the people above and beside you, and don’t be afraid to be proactive by asking someone you respect to mentor you. Look for leaders in other departments that are thriving, as well as within your own specialty. And don’t limit your ask to physicians; some of my best mentors are other allied health workers and non-medical leaders. Additionally, virtual mentors have taught me a number of leadership skills, and I’ve found value in investing in a life coach to hold me accountable. Staying open to unexpected points of view can lead to better, more nuanced leadership.

Finally, never lose sight of your focus on service—first and foremost to patients, but also to their team members. One of the challenges of leading hospitalist teams is that while we don’t work side-by-side every day, we need to seamlessly pass the baton to each other. To strengthen our team bonds, we set up an annual retreat where we examine the services we provide, identify our shortcomings, set goals to improve, and make action plans to remedy our gap areas. This practice is extremely valuable both in helping our team members recognize the strong support network around them, and in fostering ownership for the outcomes of the entire group.

Looking back, I couldn’t have envisioned that being a hospitalist—let alone a site director or service line Medical Director—would have allowed me to channel my drive into a career of larger purpose, while still holding space for the people and passions outside of work that I value most. For this I am grateful, and to this, I know I was called.

About the Author

Dr. Renee Lockey is a board-certified OB/GYN in Colorado and site director for Ob Hospitalist Group, the nation’s largest and only dedicated OB/GYN hospitalist provider.