Find your leadership style, communicate it well

Written by: Karen J. Nichols
Published on: Aug 17, 2020

“I’m the doctor, of course I’m the leader!“

Who hasn’t heard that comment — or even thought it personally? The truth is we all have a leadership style even if we’ve never thought about it.

There are several testing instruments for you to use to identify your own style and what it means. You may be a leader with a natural style that leans toward being democratic, autocratic, laissez-faire, strategic, transformational, transactional, coaching, or bureaucratic. And seldom is one person functioning in just one style.

“And why is my leadership style so important?” That’s a good question. Because while you have a natural style, different situations call for different styles. Not knowing that there are different styles and not employing the most effective style for the specific situation hampers the opportunity to achieve the desired result.

For example, in a crisis situation, a leader may choose to employ an autocratic approach when the same leader would usually prefer a more democratic style for routine matters. It’s also important to recognize that other people likely have different styles that also contribute to or hinder progress in the situation. (Don’t assume that they’re just being difficult.)

So, what does communicating well have to do with leadership when you communicate with your patients all the time? William H. Whyte said it best: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

The first steps in communicating well are to ask questions and clarify definitions. We do this all the time as physicians. Unfortunately, we often forget to do so when in a leadership role.

For example, I was meeting with leaders in the nursing profession, and they made the comment that as nurses, they were independent. The physicians in the room, including me, challenged that statement. After some rather heated comments, the facilitator of the meeting asked the nurses for their definition of the word “independent.”

It turns out that they were referring to the fact that they each had an independent license to function as a nurse. That was not the definition of the word “independent” from the physician perspective. Clarifying that definition was critical to making progress in the meeting. Asking questions and thereby clarifying definitions is the basis of good communication for us as physicians and as leaders.

Doctors are naturally cast in leadership roles. We can be more effective by learning about our leadership style and also by employing well-accepted principles of communication.





After 17 years of internal medicine practice in Arizona, she became Dean of Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine for 16 years. She now speaks nationally on women leaders in medicine topics.

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Leadership Style Resources:

Goleman, D. (2020 March/April). Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, Vol.78(2), pp. 78-90. This is a leadership style rubric that is well known.

Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K. (2012) Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. 10th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. The “Bible” for situational leadership. This resource emphasizes that different styles may be needed for different situations.

Lee, T. (2010 April) Turning doctors into leaders. Harvard Business Review, 88(4), pp 50-58. A valued perspective on the big picture of physician leadership.

Rooke, D. & Torbert, W. (2005 April) Seven transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 82(4), pp. 66-76. This article points out the types of approaches that leaders use which translate into styles. 


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