From the Bedside to the Boardroom: Developing Physician Leaders

In pulmonary/critical care and beyond

By James K. Stoller, MD, MS

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Leadership matters in healthcare. Importantly, physician leadership matters both in the boardroom and at the bedside. Many lines of evidence support this observation:

  • Healthcare faces the challenge of the “triple threat” (quality, access, affordability/value).
  • Physicians are traditionally trained as “heroic lone healers” and may be “collaboratively challenged.”1
  • Leadership competencies differ from clinical skills and are traditionally neither taught in medical school nor in graduate medical training.
  • Observational data suggest that top-tier hospital ranking in S. News and World Report is associated with having a physician as the hospital CEO.

Though leadership development is offered only in a minority of healthcare organizations2, the pulmonary/critical care/sleep community has recognized the importance of developing leadership competencies among physicians. Indeed, physician leadership development programs are becoming more widely available and are being offered by some medical centers for their caregivers, by business schools (sometimes in concert with academic medical centers), and by medical societies. For example, both the American Thoracic Society (ATS) and the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) have recently added leadership development courses to their educational portfolios.

ATS ELP building clinician leaders

For the last several years, I have directed a full-day postgraduate leadership development course through the ACCP at CHEST.

I am also directing a new, ATS-funded course called the ATS Emerging Leaders Program (ATS ELP). Aimed at high-potential, emerging leaders within the pulmonary/critical care/sleep communities, the ATS ELP invited ATS leadership to nominate both physician and nurse emerging leaders.

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Designed based on a longstanding course at Cleveland Clinic called Leading in Healthcare, the ATS ELP consists of five full-day sessions that focus on key leadership competencies, including emotional intelligence, teambuilding, change management, conflict resolution and situational leadership. The course meetings are both face-to-face and virtual and are taught by faculty dyads — business school content experts coupled with physician subject matter “context experts.”

Current ATS ELP participants are physicians (N = 17) and a nurse (N = 1), adult (N = 14) and pediatric (N = 4) clinicians, and have strong track records of academic achievement and service to the ATS. Consistent with the course focus on emerging leaders, the mean age of participants is approximately 40; most are Assistant (N = 10) or Associate Professors (N = 5), and two thirds are women. The program is also an innovation incubator, and participants work in small teams to develop business plans for executing group-determined innovative projects.

Cleveland Clinic’s model of physician leadership development

The design of the ATS ELP is based on a longstanding leadership development course offered to emerging leaders within Cleveland Clinic called Leading in Healthcare. Over the 13 years of that course, more than 530 Cleveland Clinic caregivers — physicians, nurses, and administrators — have attended. As a measure of Leading in Healthcare’s impact, a follow-up study regarding leadership promotion after the course indicated that 43 percent of course alumni were promoted to Cleveland Clinic leadership positions over the decade following their participation.

Finally, to address the growing appetite for leadership development among healthcare leaders nationally and internationally, Cleveland Clinic offers the Samson Global Leadership Academy. In its 12 offerings to date, the Academy has attracted emerging and established healthcare leaders from outside Cleveland Clinic who desire an immersive, small-group, highly personalized experience within a leading healthcare organization. The curriculum is offered by leadership experts in dyads and, like Leading in Healthcare, focuses on leadership competencies framed through the lens of “system” and “self” development. Offered twice a year since 2011 and now in both one- and two-week versions, the Samson Global Leadership Academy has attracted 125 nurses, physicians, dentists and administrators from 25 countries to date.

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Overall, the growth of these programs and others reflect the growing appetite of physicians to develop their leadership competencies. Just as with physicians’ pursuit of clinical excellence, this demand reflects physicians’ desire to achieve mastery and to have impact on the important matter of improving healthcare.

Dr. Stoller is a practicing pulmonologist, Chair of the Education Institute and holds the Jean Wall Bennett Professorship in Emphysema Research at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and the Samson Global Leadership Academy Endowed Chair.


  1. Stoller JK. Can physicians collaborate? A review of organizational development in healthcare. OD Practitioner 2004; 36 (3):19-24.
  2. Davidson PL, Azziz R, Morrison J, Rocha J, Braun J. Identifying and developing leadership competencies in health research organizations: A pilot study. J Health Admin Ed 2012; 39 (Spring): 135-154.