The Physician Leader as Learner in Healthcare

by Jen Barna MD | Courses and Coaches, Physician Coaching, Physician Leadership, Programs

How physician leaders as learners impact the entire healthcare team in a powerful way.

All doctors are leaders. We are entering a new era of physician leadership.

We live in a complex era, with many constant changes in our environment and our respective sectors. This is true in all sectors, including healthcare. There are complex sets of factors to consider at all times, an onslaught of information coming at us at all times, vying for our attention, and mightily fragmenting it unless we watch out. There are seemingly chronic crises to deal with. In  this era, more than any time before perhaps, it helps us as leaders to have a robust self-awareness.

That self-awareness has to include:

  • How do I view adversity as well as failure?
  • What is my personal resilience in the face of such adversity and failure? and
  • How can I develop more resilience?

This is where the concept of ‘The leader as learner’ comes in.

The ability to learn from our experiences, learn from feedback, learn from self-reflection on how we react to life’s circumstances, and the motivation, in addition to that ability, to learn new skills on the job, are arguably more important now than ever.

What’s part of our ‘Leader as learner’ practice?

There are many aspects to ‘The leader as learner.’

OpennessA critical one is openness to new information.

This means openness to information that does not fit with your ‘mental model’ of a situation (your set of often unspoken belief systems and assumptions); openness to innovation and creativity; and openness to feedback. And this gets us to the tricky but critical balance between projecting strength as a leader, and the equal need to show vulnerability and a knowledge of one’s limitations.

Accountability – tempered by the many factors often not in our control.

This also intersects with the extent to which we take on accountability for our decisions or actions as leaders, and how that relates to our personal resilience. Of course, as leaders we should feel accountable for and be transparent about failures on our watch. The buck does stop with the leader, in that sense. And that is also what society as well as our immediate supervisors – whether it is our boss or our board, for instance, expects from us. If we want to learn from these failures and have our organizations learn as well, we need to review our failures and be as honest as possible in that review.

In doing so, undoubtedly we will learn things that we controlled and could have done differently and also acknowledge those factors which were beyond our control. The challenge is to manage this learning process in a way that does not undermine our accountability – a tricky line to walk, especially in the field of healthcare.

It is helpful if we as leaders analyze honestly what was within our control (and for which we thus are fully accountable) and what was not (where the accountability is somewhat more nuanced, distributed or tempered). Especially given that this analysis needs to be perceived as credible by our supervisors. This helps both with accomplishing accountability (answerability) but also with learning-out-loud.

The importance of being seen to be learning.

Importantly, from an organizational culture perspective, being seen by staff to be ‘learning out loud’ reinforces a culture of learning for your entire team or organization. But this practice also helps you with maintaining your personal resilience. From a personal resilience perspective, you see, referencing ‘the buck stops here’ is not always that helpful, actually. The buck does not always stop with you: there are often many factors in what causes a failure that are not in our control as leader.

The research on personal resilience indicates that your personal resilience in dealing with adversity or failure increases if you acknowledge that there are many interwoven factors in plenty of situations (credit to Pat Longstaff for this insight). Many things are out of our control. So while our organizations may expect us to accept that ‘the buck stops with us,’ and while that may be a reasonable expectation from an organizational perspective, internally, you need to be foremost accountable for learning from that failure or adversity. Our obligation as leaders is to learn.

How can your teams or organizations learn, if you as a leader cannot?

One more reason why the concept of ‘The leader as learner’ is so powerful to me: as my mentor Catherine Gerard, from whom I learned much, used to say in presentations: “If you cannot learn as leader, how can the team or organization learn?” As a leader, the ‘signaling value’ of your behaviors to the team is enormous, and cannot be underestimated. Therefore: elicit feedback frequently and informally; showcase openness to receiving it as well as a willingness to act on it; build your team members’ skills in doing the same; model a culture of psychological safety in your team(s); and showcase an enthusiasm for after action reviews and learning exercises. Your personal resilience will improve, and your teams will thank you.


Byline: Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken has coached leaders in the nonprofit sector – especially internationally – for about 30 years. Tosca’s practice focuses on leadership development, change management and organizational culture work. She also enjoys coaching leaders on virtual team leadership skills, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging strategies, and on gender and leadership. She is a co-author of a book on international nonprofits which was published by Oxford University Press in 2020; a podcast host and thought leader. You can find Tosca’s profile here and hereTosca’s new course ‘Post-Pandemic Virtual Team Leadership’ is accessible to the DocWorking community through its Trusted Resources Coaches and Courses. Tosca is a dual national of the Netherlands and USA.


Board-certified practicing radiologist, founder and CEO of DocWorking, and host of top ranked DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

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