The Soft Skills You Need to be a Leader in Medicine

Medicine needs a strong core of leadership now more than ever. Medical students and new physicians spend massive amounts of time training and studying the basics of medicine, yet they may not be receiving training in many of the soft skills required to be a leader in today’s medical environment.
Being knowledgeable about disease and various forms of treatment is absolutely vital, but soft skills are what separates a good physician from a great physician. These skills include communication, collaboration, and confidence. As physicians, we are expected to practice as a team, and ultimately be the leader of that team. Let’s discuss how you can prepare to be a leader in medicine.
Medical school and residency can often times put you in an individualistic mindset. Your success or failure is up to you. You put in the hours studying, preparing for rotations or reading up on the latest treatments. To get that preferred residency or shining letter of recommendation, you must outperform your classmates and colleagues. While I believe a healthy dose of competition is necessary to advance the medical field, this dynamic in medical training and education is putting physicians at a disadvantage when they must practice in a team-focused form of care.
One way or another, you will be forced to collaborate with those around you. Whether it is with your attending physicians and nurses to treat patients during residency, or with attorneys and hiring managers when going through contract negotiations, you will be working as a team.
In these times, it is acceptable to open your decisions to disagreement from colleagues, reach out for advice, and question yourself (in moderation). It is impossible for you to be everywhere and know everything about administering care. Relying on a team is not only good practice, but also central to being a good leader.
Communication is one of many platitudes that gets used in professional circles, but is rarely understood or effectively practiced. What does good communication in a medical practice look like? Good communication starts with listening well, and knowing what information is useful and what information is not. As mentioned previously, physicians do not practice in a bubble. We are surrounded by different perspectives from both our own teams and the patients themselves. It is easy to make a decision based solely on your own viewpoint, but listening goes a long way in earning respect, and thus authority.
Another key piece of communication in a position of leadership is criticism. You will be both on giving and receiving end of criticism. Regardless, always keep your criticism constructive. You may be annoyed or even very angry with a member of your team for one reason or another. A good leader will make sure that the critique they give teaches that person something they can improve upon, without being too emotionally charged.
You can start practicing this in your education and training by first receiving criticism well. This means not getting defensive, making excuses, or tuning out those criticizing you. Listen well and take notes, either mentally or physically. Remembering what it is like to be on the receiving end, (e.g. what was actually helpful and what was not), can be very useful when you are the one critiquing.
Competence breeds confidence. Knowing the most you possibly can about your basic medical sciences and chosen specialty is clearly an advantage. When your confidence is bolstered by making sure your clinical and scientific fundamentals are sound, you also foster confidence in the members of your team.
You might think confidence is something you either have or you don’t, but it is actually more like a skill you can develop. Building confidence in your decision-making starts early in your education with small victories and faith in your own abilities. Obviously, learning as much as possible about the many facets of the field you are interested in and testing the limits of your comfort zone is imperative. No matter what, you will eventually make mistakes or not know something. In fact, you should welcome your mistakes and openly address them instead of trying to hide them. How you respond to the mistakes you make is the foundation of your confidence.
Also, confidence comes in many shapes and sizes. Even if you are a much quieter and reserved individual, you can easily display confidence by knowing your stuff and being firm in your decision-making. Physicians who invest their time in preparation and truly want to deliver the best patient care usually become the most confident leaders.
Patient-centered Care
Patient-centered care is a relatively novel concept, but one that is becoming widely accepted in caring for patients. The traditional view is that the doctor and only the doctor knows best, and while the physician is the expert, the patient’s perception can provide valuable insights. There are a number of patient-centered tests which ask the patients to rate certain metrics, such as discomfort. This gives the patient the opportunity to be heard and gives them a sense of responsibility for their care.
Maybe the greatest benefit of allowing the patient to have a say, though, is the trust and empathy that it conveys on the part of the physician. Many are starting to worry that the practice of medicine is becoming too highly technical without a recognition of the many emotional and behavioral dynamics at play. This is akin to our discussion of communication and the benefit of listening. Realizing that the patient’s perspective matters early on in your medical careers can pay dividends later on. Patients and colleagues trust those who make an effort to care.
The soft skills may seem like a peripheral consideration when you think about all of the many skills and knowledge you must master to become a physician. Developing soft skills requires energy and diligence, and in most cases, opportunities to practice these skills won’t necessarily be clear cut. However, taking the time to grow your collaborative abilities, communication skills and confidence will make all of the difference once you begin to practice.
About the Author
Sidney Christiansen has spent the last 30 years as a practicing Otolaryngologist in both private and academic sectors, and after retiring, founded Resolve Physician Agency to educate and prepare other physicians on the business side of medicine.