Whether their ultimate career goal is to chair an oncology department at a major teaching hospital, work in private practice, or win the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for their discoveries, having solid leadership skills can help oncology fellows achieve it.

Leadership is hard to define, but we all recognize the trait when we see it. Although it’s not written on the diploma, fellows are expected to be leaders the minute they earn the right to be called “Doctor.”

“If you’re a physician, you’re a leader. You may not think of yourself as a leader, but others look to you as a leader, even as a fellow, whether it’s nurses, mid-level professionals, or technicians, you are looked upon as a leader,” said Steven M. Sperling, PhD, president of Executive Development Group, LLC, a management consulting firm specializing in providing customized physician and administrative leadership programs for academic medical centers, cancer centers, and health care systems.

Bookshelves are crowded with titles offering generic advice about what it means to be a leader, but all of that ink can be distilled down to 3 easy-to-grasp but not-so-easy-to-achieve concepts:

  1. Effective communication
  2. Conflict management
  3. Collaboration

The day-to-day demands on an oncology fellow may be different from those of a Fortune 500 executive, but the basic skill set is the same. Yet the hardest part, said Dr. Sperling, often is convincing both management and fellows themselves that oncologists in the making can benefit from leadership training.

“Given the tight resources that most institutions currently face, many don’t invest in their mid-level or senior faculty, and so investment in fellows is something for which you really need to have a vision, to say ‘We’re educating the future’ as opposed to asking what’s the return on investing in people who are going to leave in a couple of years,” he said.

For their part, fellows need to understand that leadership skills are a means to achieving an end: being a better physician or researcher.

“At the simplest level, there’s a self-interest in being more effective. Knowing how to reduce conflicts that waste time enables one to concentrate on what they need to achieve,” Dr. Sperling said.

Physician leaders must balance efficiency and education to ensure team development and excellent patient care.1

Additionally, more effective collaboration means better patient care by helping oncologists learn how to work in concert with nurses, support staff, and colleagues across multiple disciplines to provide coordinated care for patients with complex medical needs.2

Senior leadership and faculty development at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, worked with Dr. Sperling and his organization to establish leadership development programs. There, various levels of leadership training are offered to faculty members starting out on their academic careers, mid-level faculty, and senior staff in formal leadership positions or on the leadership track. The programs are open to both clinical and nonclinical staff in the leadership pipeline.

An oncologic reconstructive surgeon who recently completed the program, dubbed “Faculty Leadership Academy,” acknowledged that it requires a major commitment on the part of faculty and the hospital.

“It’s a significant cost to the institution, but the institution is so dedicated to training from within people who they feel have leadership ability, who can contribute, and it’s a tremendous course,” said Steven J. Kronowitz, MD, professor of plastic surgery at MD Anderson. “I think everyone who comes in brings different skills. We get a 360 [degree] analysis from all of our peers, including our colleagues in addition to people who work under us, our direct reports, as well as from our managers.”

Dr. Kronowitz said that the training has had a positive effect on his day-to-day life as one of 19 plastic surgeons in a group practice. As part of the training, he received about 25 reviews of his skills and leadership style from peers, staff members who report directly to him, nurses, and his superiors at MD Anderson.

For this innovator who is constantly testing new ways of doing things, the training has helped him both “sell” his ideas to others and learn how to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of others into his overall goals.

“The most important thing that I learned was that it’s great to have a vision, but what’s important is you have to have buy-in and you have to have everyone be part of that vision, and it’s important to stay open and have everyone’s ideas come to the forefront, to really put the best things forward,” he said.

Another important lesson for learning leadership is “Physician, know thyself.”

“What we do increases self-awareness and self-insight, that’s step 1 in any leadership journey. If you don’t know yourself and the impact you potentially have on others, and that people have different styles of relating to each other, you can’t be an effective leader,” Dr. Sperling said.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology, in collaboration with Dr. Sperling’s group, offers an intensive leadership training course for early career oncologists and a 2-day seminar for other physicians wishing to develop their leadership skills.3 Other professional societies, academic medical centers, and for-profit companies also offer leadership training for oncologists and other professionals (Table 1).

Table 1. Nonprofit Organizations Offering Physician Leadership Training 
Organization Web site
American Society of Clinical Oncology asco.org
American College of Physician Executives acpe.org
Physicians for a National Health Program pnhp.org
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation rwjcsp.unc.edu


  1. Majmudar A, Jain AK, Caudry J, Schwartz RW. High performance teams and the physician leader: an overview. J Surg Edc. 2010;67(4):205-209.
  2. Rose L. Interprofessional collaboration in the ICU: how to define? Nurs Crit Care. 2011;16(1)5-10.
  3. Leadership Training. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.asco.org/ASCOv2/Education+%26+Training/Training/Leadership+Training. Accessed June 3, 2011.

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