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Healthcare leaders are trained, not born

Every training year, I train the incoming interns to respond when a patient or supervisor says something inappropriate. Maybe it’s an unintentional microaggression from a supervisor or a sexually intrusive comment from a patient. But I usually hear about how trainees apply this skill in the first few weeks of the training year.

It's not easy to give difficult feedback or to call out inappropriate behaviors. But it is much easier to do both these things when you’ve been prepared with the right tools, a supportive community of peers, and a mentor.

Teaching leadership skills requires a similar level of intentionality and support. Leadership is a skill that can be taught and learned. And it is best learned in a supportive community of peers and mentors.

Dr. Nicole Torrence and I had the opportunity to explore how healthcare systems can provide the support health professions trainees need to equip them for future leadership roles.

Bio: Dr. Nicole Torrence is the training director for a psychology internship program in a large healthcare system.

Watch a snippet:

It can be tempting to fall for the trap that leaders are born, not trained. But there is clear evidence that leadership is a trainable skill.

Expecting leaders to rise through the clinical ranks and then demonstrate excellence is unreasonable. Many healthcare systems are already taking this challenge seriously and committing significant resources to train their up-and-coming leaders.

But even with some training and good intentions, not all leaders learn to finesse their application of trickier leadership skills.

I’m considering interpersonal skills, such as giving clear, specific, and supportive feedback. Or translate listening skills’ importance into a leader’s willingness to approach difficult conversations and receive painful feedback. And finally, leaders who are fabulous with their subordinates are not always confident in giving direct feedback to their supervisor or advisory board.

These are some of the most common leadership challenges that emerge when I work with teams motivated to upskill how they support and engage their department or system. Weaknesses in these interpersonal leadership skills contribute to burnout and dissatisfaction among team members.

So how can we equip future leaders to develop confidence and competence in these core leadership skills?

Provide didactic education about leadership models.

Leaders-in-training benefit from learning about various models of leadership. A foundational understanding of leadership models helps future leaders make sense of their applied experiences.

After providing educational scaffolding, it’s important to help future leaders to understand how various leadership models map onto your organization’s core values and their own. For example, if your organization is built upon Servant Leadership, ensure your future leaders understand why.

Helping trainees connect their values with leadership models and behaviors will help them begin to make values-based decisions and become values-based leaders in the future.

Provide opportunities for real-world application of leadership skills.

Your organization needs leadership, so it won’t be difficult to identify a project or initiative for future leaders to step into.

The challenge for most leaders, supervisors, and organizations is letting go of control so that leaders-in-training have room to stumble and grow while they learn to lead. Giving these leaders enough autonomy and authority to impact outcomes valued by the healthcare system is critical.

Provide a supportive mentor to guide leadership development.

Don’t forget to provide a safety net. Leaders-in-training benefit from having a supportive mentor or mentoring community skilled in providing developmentally tailored feedback as they apply themselves to leadership tasks.

The healthcare organization is better served when these future leaders are well supported, and the leaders themselves gain confidence and openness to feedback.

They also learn that leadership is not a solitary activity but is developed in a relationship with their community. This is a critical lesson they’ll take with them into future leadership experiences.

My first boss after graduate school exemplified this commitment to my leadership development.

I’m not sure how he made the time, but I remember he prioritized conversations about leadership development and shared numerous leadership articles we discussed during our monthly meetings.

He pushed me to take on challenging roles and coaching experiences before I had the experience to know what I was doing. And he provided a steady presence and wise sounding board that I relied on as I learned the basics of leadership in those early years.

Two of my mentors from the early days, Drs. MaryJean Mariano and Craig Santerre.

Consider these strategies when you welcome the next crop of eager trainees or new employees into your healthcare organization.

Leaders are trained, and you are responsible for equipping your organization’s future values-based leaders long before they take on formal leadership roles.

Provide foundational education about leadership. Create real-world opportunities for future leaders to hone their skills. Identify supportive mentors who will guide the next generation of leaders.

Investing effort and intentionality in leaders-in-training will ensure that these future leaders are ready to take on formal leadership roles when your organization needs them.

Someone invested in me, and I am committed to investing in the leaders of the future. I hope you are too.

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