The Skills to Lead

February 1, 2005

Tips for personal leadership

Ever wonder why you have trouble retaining good staff? Have you heard nurses complaining about you? Feel like colleagues hesitate to refer patients your way? While it's possible that your clinical competency is a factor, for many physicians, it's more likely a glitch in your personal style. 

Being nice is important -- but there's more to it. To paraphrase the authors of the book, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, the emotions of a group's leader are contagious. As a physician, there are plenty of people in your practice who look to you as a leader. If a leader exudes energy and enthusiasm, so will the organization. If the leader is negative, that will permeate the group.

How do they see you?

Begin by gauging the effect you have on people. When a nurse approaches you to ask a question, is she smiling and looking at ease? If so, the vibes you send out say, "It's safe to come and talk to me."

On the other hand, you may be sending out vibes that say, "I'm not approachable." Staff may follow your orders; just be sure you aren't confusing respect with fear. You'll get far more cooperation and productivity from staff -- not to mention enjoyment all around --  when they act out of respect and connection to you. 

Consider asking a nurse or another physician to give you confidential feedback. It takes courage, but the input could be invaluable. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • "How would you describe my style?"
  • "What do you hear from others about how I come across?"
  • "What one or two things would you change about my communication style?"

Make a connection

Next, find and use words and mannerisms that will make you more approachable and help you connect with others.

Dale Carnegie, the guru of public speaking and leadership development, once said, "The sweetest sound to anyone's ear is the sound of their own name." Make a point to address others by name.

In your clinic, make "social rounds" by taking the long way back from your car to office, or the roundabout way from the coffee lounge. On the way, greet staff, ask them about their weekend or their family. Find a reason to offer positive feedback. Do the same at the hospital ward. When you're doing a procedure, ask for instruments or assistance from staff with the same kindness and grace that you would ask for the gravy boat at a dinner party.

What if you're shy? 

Natural introverts often find themselves labeled as "aloof." But plenty of introverted people are collegial, build strong relationships, and become good leaders. The key is to stay true to yourself, but to stretch your boundaries a little bit. There is no need to be loud, demonstrative, or overly chatty. Be direct and clear in expressing kindness with your voice, eyes, and gestures. Over a series of weeks or months, have one-on-one conversations with your colleagues to learn more about them, and to share a little bit about yourself. That's true connection.

You may be thinking all of this is trivial --  that technical competency is more important in building a thriving practice. But successful physician leaders will tell you that their success still depends on the fundamental "people skills." 

Francine R. Gaillour, MD, MBA, FACPE, is president of The Gaillour Group, an executive coaching resource for physicians who want to develop their potential as leaders, entrepreneurs, and business professionals. Her transition into business management came after 10 years of practicing in internal medicine. She can be reached at francine@physicianleadership.com, (888)562-7289, www.physicianleadership.com, or at editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 issue of Physicians Practice.