Leading in challenging times

To drive real innovation, we need leaders who can set the cultural tone and promote inclusive, team-based learning and clinical environments.
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This spring, I joined fellow leaders in academic medicine for our annual AAMC council meetings—the Council of Deans and Council of Teaching Hospitals and Health Systems combined meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., and the Council of Faculty and Academic Societies meeting in Chicago, Ill. I always value these gatherings for the opportunities they present to share best practices, network with colleagues, and hear fresh perspectives from peers across the country. This year, the conversation turned to the many ways our community innovates to meet our current challenges—from developing new models for health care delivery to seeking out new sources of research funding and developing new methods of educating today’s learners. Many of these changes are already having positive effects on our institutions and communities.

But change, even necessary and positive change, can be difficult for individuals and organizations. In this time of transformation, it has become clear that we need to support leaders in developing the skills and knowledge they need to tackle the change-management challenges of 21st century health care.

By fostering collaborative work environments, leaders at all levels of academic medicine can encourage their colleagues to perform at their best and position our institutions to solve our most pressing challenges.

What do we need from our leaders to address the challenges we face today and those we can see on the horizon? Though our community is innovating across our mission areas, the culture of our institutions often follows an older model—one that privileges the hierarchy and competition of the status quo. When this is the case, organizational leaders are sometimes expected to have all of the answers—to simply implement a set of prescribed solutions to an institution’s challenges.

But to drive real innovation, we need leaders who can set the cultural tone and promote inclusive, team-based learning and clinical environments. We need “multipliers”—leaders who look for ways to amplify intelligence, produce better outcomes, and foster talent in their colleagues. By fostering collaborative work environments, leaders at all levels of academic medicine can encourage their colleagues to perform at their best and position our institutions to solve our most pressing challenges. This will drive innovation in academic medicine and health care at large.

Training leaders to be multipliers begins in medical school. Medical schools are now expected to provide interprofessional team training as part of the curriculum, equipping the next generation of physicians with the ability to understand, respect, and amplify the work of other health professionals. Through active service-learning programs, medical students are learning to be leaders in their communities. Advocacy initiatives, both at AAMC institutions and our own AAMC Action, offer students and residents the experience of advocating before policymakers and state and national leaders. Coupled with a shift toward training in core professional competencies, like interpersonal and communication skills and personal and professional development, these experiences promise a next generation of physicians that is more well-rounded and prepared for diverse and complex challenges. 

Moreover, many medical schools are partnering with schools of business to offer students the opportunity to develop their skills in management, finance, and other subjects more closely associated with business training than with medical school. This type of coursework offers physicians a new perspective on hospital operations, the cost of care, and our use of resources. With the challenges we face in health care, we need this expertise from disciplines beyond medicine in order to succeed. 

By following our ethical principles, our leaders can focus on using limited resources wisely to drive real change in health care, find the solutions to our most pressing challenges, and improve the care of patients and communities and, ultimately, the health of all.

At the AAMC, our own leadership development course offerings aim to build and extend the skills and potential of academic medicine leaders. We offer leadership training in three different formats: deep skill building workshops, large scale seminars, and long-term certificate programs. We have developed content for constituents at many points during their careers, because leadership matters at every level of an organization—not just the top.

This month, our LEAD Certificate Program, which offers leadership training and a professional learning community for early to mid-career emerging leaders in health professions education, kicked off its first national cohort in our learning center in Washington, D.C. In June, we will host the Mid-Career Minority Faculty Leadership seminar, a distinctive blended learning program that takes a culturally responsive approach to enhancing leadership skills, networking, and career development planning. Also in June, the application process will open for the Organizational Leadership in Academic Medicine for New Associate Deans and Department Chairs seminar, a multiday program that will take place in October designed for new academic medicine leaders to enhance their skills in people management, financial management, and communications. We also held our second annual Leadership Week early this year, with workshops focused on resilience, negotiations, and conflict management. 

These programs are just a subset of our full catalog of 14 leadership development courses. We are continuously evolving our offerings and developing new courses for leaders at every level of academic medicine. More information is available about these and our many other leadership development courses at aamc.org/leadership. 

I often find that conversations about transforming health care focus on the availability of resources. I can understand why, particularly at a time when the future of funding is so uncertain. But we also need to ensure we are training leaders at all levels of our organizations to be good stewards of the resources we have. The leaders of today face tough decisions in their efforts to advance academic medicine. Our challenges require that they not only rely on the knowledge and talents of their colleagues and team members, but also that they take as their guideposts our ethical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and social justice. By following our ethical principles, our leaders can focus on using limited resources wisely to drive real change in health care, find the solutions to our most pressing challenges, and improve the care of patients and communities and, ultimately, the health of all.