What traits predict exceptional physician leadership? 4 key findings

To identify characteristics that predict strong performance by physician executives, executive search firm Witt/Kieffer and Hogan Assessment Systems assessed 137 physician executives and collected performance data from nearly 100 physician executives within the Renton, Wash.-based Providence Health & Services hospital system.

Despite the relatively modest sample size, Witt/Kieffer and Hogan's survey revealed high-performing physician executives demonstrate several unique behavioral traits compared with nonphysician leaders. The survey found strong physician leadership fosters patient loyalty to a health system. Finally, the survey indicated physician and nonphysician healthcare leaders work differently and can learn from each other by understanding their differences.

Below are four main findings from Witt/Kieffer's report, called "Predicting Physician Executive Performance."

1. According to the report, "top-performing" physician executives can be differentiated from "good" physician executives by traits such as resiliency, even temper and a willingness to share praise and success.

2. Physician executives who were rated as top performers by their supervisors had high "adjustment" scores, meaning they remain composed under pressure, they're confident and have high self-esteem, according to the report. Research also found qualities such as flexibility and optimism as predictive of exceptional physician leadership.

3. The physician leadership competency study found physician leaders who received higher patient loyalty ratings within their respective practices are:  

  • Persistent, self-confident and willing to lead and mentor team members
  • Decisive, assertive and open to new ideas and methods
  • Able to build a healthcare environment grounded in professionalism and providing high-quality care

4. Compared with nonphysician executives, Witt/Kieffer and Hogan's study shows high-performing physician executives are typically:

  • More focused on learning and staying current with changes in the medical field
  • More resilient and persistent under pressure
  • Unafraid to approach problems uniquely and innovatively
  • Less focused on financial success compared to other healthcare leaders
  • Data-based decision makers who value hard metrics to guide decision making

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