Do You Want to be a Leader in Academic Medicine?*

Christine Cassel, M.D.

Becoming a leaders: Who, What, and Why?

Attributes of a leader include being strong, decisive, inspiring, effective and persuasive.

What does leadership mean in academic medicine? Pick the area of your greatest interest and strength: clinical, educational, research, political and managerial.

Do you really want to be a leader?

Ask yourself: On whose terms? Is academic medicine a workable environment currently? Will it ever change?

If you say, "I need problems. A good problem makes me come alive", you may want to become a leader.

Leadership opportunities open up during times of turmoil. Fast-changing environments play havoc with tradition and traditional roles.

The degree of growth or change in an organization is an important factor in creating opportunities for women. When change is rampant, everything is up for grabs, and crises are frequent. Crises are generally not desirable, but they do create opportunities for people to prove themselves. Many women got their first break because their organizations were in turmoil.

"Gone are the days of women succeeding by learning to play men's games. Instead the time has come for men on the move to learn to play women's games". T.J.Peters

"Participatory Management" is an approach that is comfortable for many women. Leadership that doesn't concentrate on "the leader" but on participation.

Abraham Lincoln said, "It's surprising how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

The main job of a leader is to help her team succeed. When people accomplish their goals, everyone wins.

Maxim: None of us is as smart as all of us.

"Women use participation to clarify their own views by thinking things through out loud".

"When I face a tough decision, I always ask my employees, "What would you do if you were me?"

Participation also increases support for decisions ultimately reached and reduces the risk that ideas will be undermined.

But remember:

  • Soliciting ideas and information from others takes time, often requires giving up some control, opens the door to criticism, and exposes personal and turf conflicts.
  • Asking for ideas and information can be interpreted as not having answers.
  • And a warning: saying that you include others doesn't mean others necessarily feel included.

A final point to remember when you are leading:

"Success is not forever and failure isn't total."
-Don Shula and Ken Branchard, Everyone's a Coach

Suggested Readings


Gilligan, C. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1993.

Helgesen, S. The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership. New York; Doubleday; 1990.

Jamieson, KH. Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. New York; Oxford University Press; 1995

Nichols, NA. Reach for the Top: Women and the Changing Facts of Work Life. Boston: Harvard Business Review; 1994.

Robinson-Walker, C. Women and Leadership in Health Care: The Journey to Authenticity and Power. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1999.

Jackson, P. Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Peters, TJ, Waterman, Jr., RH. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. Warner. 1984.


Avery CM. All power to you: collaborative leadership works. The Journal for Quality and Participation. 1999 March/April;22(2):36-40.

Bickel J. Women in academic medicine. Journal of the American Medical Womens Association. 2000;55(1):10-2, 19.

Buckley LM, Sanders K, Shih M, Kallar S, Hampton C. Obstacles to promotion? Values of women faculty about career success and recognition. Academic Medicine 2000;75(3):283-288.

Davidhizar R, Cramer C. Gender differences in leadership in the health professions. Health Care Manager. 2000;18(3):18-24.

Webster C, Grusky O, Podus D, Young A. Team leadership: network differences in women's and men's instrumental and expressive relations. Administrative Policy Mental Health. 1999 Jan;26(3):169-190.

*The final version of the experts' presentations have been edited by Sandra K. Masur, Ph.D.(WFG President), Miki Rifkin, Ph.D.(WFG Vice President) often from notes of Kathryn Kaplan, Ph.D.,MSSM Consultant, Organizational Development.

Back to Faculty Development