How To Train Your Leader?

Last month, I attended a meeting held by HFSA, entitled “Future Leaders in Heart Failure Symposia.” The meeting gathered together a multi-disciplinary team of trainees – cardiology fellows, nurses, pharmacists, post-doctoral researchers – to immerse them in discussions with current leaders in the world of heart failure. Session topics centered on themes such as having conversations with division chairs and effectively building and running a subspecialty clinic.

The HFSA Future Leaders program provided a venue for participants to actively engage in discussions with prominent faculty members (the current leaders in heart failure), as well as meet each other (our future, fellow leaders in heart failure). While the goal of the program was not necessarily designed to “train” us on how to be leaders per se, I could not help but think about the following:

  1. What are the qualities of an effective leader?
  2. Can you actually train someone to be a leader, or is leadership ability an innate quality one is simply born with or without?

I’m still trying to sort out my own answer to Question #2, but from my training experience thus far and after some fun discussions with colleagues, I’ve tried to distill my answer to Question #1 into 3 common qualities I have found in effective leaders in medicine and medical research:

  • Treat their team members with respect. When I was a medical student, the CEO of our hospital system spoke to our class as we were about to start our first clinical rotation. While the practice of a CEO speaking to medical students (infamously the lowest position on the totem pole in the hospital patient care setting) may potentially be a common practice, the CEO uncommonly spoke to us as peers, teammates in the collective mission to improve our patients’ health. At the end of his talk, he asked each of us to take our cell phones out of our pockets, and he gave us his personal cell phone number to enter into our Contacts directory. He urged us to call him with any issues we thought could help improve our patient care. Ten years later, I still have his number on my phone, and while I have never called him, this gesture had a tremendous impact on me as a trainee. The CEO was widely considered to be an outstanding leader for our hospital, and I’ve found that effective leaders similarly seek out opportunities to meet with their team members and earnestly listen to their stories. Great leaders know and respect the individuals of their teams.
  • Know their material. It is difficult to ascend into a leadership position without having demonstrated a superior grasp of the pertinent material in your field. Yet leaders actively find ways to demonstrate their knowledge of the field, whether it be through peer-reviewed publications, through presentations at local or national conferences, or even through small group discussions with their team members. This demonstration of knowledge elicits trust from their team members – trust that they “know their stuff” well enough to make appropriate, well informed decisions going forward and move their teams in the right direction.
  • Speak publicly with passion and clarity. Public speaking is a challenge for most people, and some may argue that being an excellent public speaker is not a requirement for being a great leader. But in my experience, I have found that the leaders whom I admire are those who can not only demonstrate their deep knowledge of a topic (e.g., the urgent need to improve our delivery of optimal HF therapy to our patients) during a public presentation, but can also excite the audience to go out and uptitrate their patients’ beta-blocker doses right away. A famous quote from President Dwight Eisenhower goes: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because [they] want to do it.” Leaders who are engaging, eloquent speakers tend to be the ones who can convince you of the importance of achieving your collective goal and clearly articulate their vision for the team.

I am confident that this list will dynamically evolve over the course of my career, as I continue to be privileged to meet my professional heroes. But as trainees interested in becoming future leaders in cardiovascular medicine, I believe it is important for us to reflect on the important qualities of the leaders we follow and admire. Can we be trained, or even train ourselves, to cultivate these qualities in own leadership practice? Entire books and TED Talk series are devoted to these questions, and I hope to reflect further on these questions in future posts. But if your goal is to become a leader in medicine, perhaps the first step is to recognize these common characteristics of leaders you personally admire and find ways to incorporate these habits into your own routine.


What do you think are qualities of effective leaders? Do you think these qualities can be taught? I would love to hear your thoughts via Twitter (@JeffHsuMD).