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Climbing the leadership ladder

Karen Burge
Med J Aust
Published online: 4 February 2013

Learning about leadership isn’t just about career leverage. Whether you’re eyeing the lofty heights of national leadership or want to make a difference on the ground, developing leadership insight might be a step in the right direction

Australia’s complex and ever-changing health care system opens the door to many leadership opportunities, whether academic, clinical or political.

While not everyone aspires to becoming a leader, many find themselves pushed to the head of the table as their interests, passions or achievements grow.

President-elect of the World Organization of Family Doctors Professor Michael Kidd says he hadn’t envisioned a medical leadership career in his earlier years.

“I certainly didn’t imagine when I was at school or at university that I would become president of a medical college or president of a global medical organisation”, says Professor Kidd, who is also Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Flinders University and former president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

“But throughout my career many people have provided mentorship, support, advice and opportunities, which have allowed me to develop my leadership skills and my own leadership style.”

Thinking about leadership early in a career and seeking out opportunities to gain experience can help develop your leadership potential. Although there are many elements that help create effective leaders, it is often their values, and how those values are actioned, that earns trust and collaboration from the teams they lead.

Menzies Centre for Health Policy director Professor Stephen Leeder says “good values matter far more than charisma, strength, and every competence under the sun”.

Charisma and strength are some of the more traditional notions of leadership that still linger in some organisations today but, according to Professor Leeder, they don’t make for effective leaders.

“I have no confidence in competences to save us from destructive leadership. If someone is purporting to be a leader I ask: where is the team he or she is a member of in which they are participating as a leader and what are their values?”

He believes a team needs to be united by a set of “admirable, progressive values, with lots of checks and balances, and accountability to keep us all on track”.

What does it take?

So if it isn’t about traits and skills, what does it take to be an effective leader? Professor Kidd believes great leaders inspire people to have a focus on the greater good, have a clearly articulated vision and possess an infectious passion. Further, they support others to become great leaders too. They also learn from their mistakes, he adds, and accept that not everyone will always agree with them.

Like many medical leaders, Professor Kidd garnered much of his experience on the job as he rose through the ranks. “Although I had a number of previous leadership roles, when I was elected as RACGP president I organised some professional coaching in leadership, especially on ways to manage some of the serious challenges which were facing our college at that time and with a focus on some of the areas where I felt I needed more skills”, he explains. “You develop your skills as you go along. And you continue to learn.”

Learning curve

There are many education options available for those who wish to finetune particular skills or to enhance their overall understanding of leadership in the health system.

As head of the Nossal Institute for Global Health’s International Health Education and Learning Unit, Dr Tim Moore co-coordinates the Public Health Leadership and Management course, a core subject in the Master of Public Health degree. The course explores the characteristics of leadership, different leadership styles and how they are effectively applied, among other topics.

“One of the big things about leadership is being adaptable to situations, people, issues and perhaps the environment”, he explains. “So the trick is to bring the evidence to the classroom to help students gain not just a working knowledge of what effective leadership is, but real skills in line with that evidence.”

“The expectation isn’t that you’re going to produce 100 prime ministers. What you are going to produce is 100 people with an understanding of leadership, and therefore an ability to be good and effective leaders in whatever positions they are in. But more importantly, they will be able to support great leadership.”

Putting training into practice

Professor Jane Gunn wears many leadership hats, including chair of Primary Care Research and head of the University of Melbourne’s General Practice and Primary Health Care Academic Centre. She’s found training an essential part of leadership development.

“I have had many opportunities via the University of Melbourne to take part in high-quality leadership training from mid career to senior leadership roles. The programs have usually taken place over 12–18 months with intensive workshops and projects”, she explains.

“I have found these programs very useful and I have learnt from them. I highly recommend taking part in these types of activities.”

Professor Gunn believes leadership training should begin early in one’s career. “I think that learning about leadership — from theory to practice — should be a part of medical school training and it should be a very strong part of postgraduate training as well.”

The lure of leadership

Professor Michael Kidd’s tips for aspiring leaders:

Get some firsthand experience. You learn to be a leader by being a leader.

Seek out experience. Put your hand up.

Read about other leaders, especially autobiographies or biographies of people you admire.

Research the skills and techniques needed. If you are not a great public speaker, or you’re worried about working with the media, or you don’t know much about risk management, go and get some training.

Seek mentoring with an accomplished leader. When I was RACGP president I had an invaluable hour each week with my mentor who was an experienced former leader of our college.

Learn from poor leaders. Examine what it is about people who are not good leaders that makes them so and make sure you don’t repeat their mistakes

Use your head and your heart to make rational decisions that are balanced by compassion. Then use your gut to make sure the decision feels right.

Support other leaders and those who seek to lead. If you are a leader and someone new is appointed to a leadership role in your discipline, be one of the first to call to congratulate them and offer your support.

  • Karen Burge


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