Physician Self-Leadership: Keep your Hands on the Steering Wheel of your Life


When I listen to all the external factors that create frustration and anguish for my coaching clients, it is tempting to want to simply put my head in my hands and “despair” with them. Limited face to face interaction with their patients, dysfunctional EMRs, institutionalized disrespect, intrusive measures of performance and productivity are some of the soul-devouring challenges that they are facing. It can feel like a betrayal for me to suggest that they continue to look within for solutions to their unhappiness. Yet, relinquishing control of their personal compass to the misery of outside forces, is a sure-fire recipe for loss of self-determination and freedom of choice.

By the very nature of their work and  responsibilities, all physicians function as “self-leaders”. However, self-leadership, as a defined strategy that may help to counteract burnout; facilitate career growth and change; and promote leadership potential is often not recognized. Cultivating self-leadership does not deny the negative impact of external, systemic factors on physician wellbeing and satisfaction, but it can help to preserve a sense of self and retain empowerment to chart personal destiny.

The desire for a linear, predictable career trajectory is a well earned expectation for physicians, but it is not an expectation that always serves them well in the  current environment of upheaval, uncertainty and change in healthcare. It can result in a mindset of inflexibility and even victimhood, both of which limit the capacity to develop fresh perspective and explore potential opportunities.

The poem “IF’ by Rudyard Kipling exemplifies the qualities of self-leadership. It challenges the reader to commit to being in charge of their own life, however dire the odds. Giving up this responsibility, however tempting in times of adversity and stress, is the equivalent of relinquishing dominion and control over the core  of who we are. The recent discussions suggesting that the current healthcare environment is causing physicians to suffer “moral injury” speaks to this potential destruction of the soul. 

6 Questions to explore on the Path of Self- Leadership

  • Do you know who you are at your core? 
  • Do you know what drives you?
  • Do you have a vision for your future and the impact that you want to have?
  • Do you meet challenges with creativity?
  • Are you able to constructively manage your emotions?
  • Can you make decisions and take action?
Above all, never forget the words from Invictus.

Out of the night that covers me,   
  Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
  For my unconquerable soul.   

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
  I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
  My head is bloody, but unbowed.   

Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
  Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years   
  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   

It matters not how strait the gate,   
  How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
  I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley



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