Lessons in physician leadership

Kristopher Pugh, MD, discusses how investing in yourself can better impact your organization.

The success of medical practices is dependent on strong leadership, which can positively influence an organization and the patients it serves. Yet, while physicians are trained to be clinical and surgical experts, leadership training is not typically included in their educations. How, then, can they become the effective, confident leaders practices need?

While many physicians rely on a strong practice administrator to help meet these expectations, to truly achieve organizational success doctors must be engaged leaders as well. By helping to define and set forth the practice’s mission, vision and core values — in addition to demonstrating emotional intelligence and effective communication — physicians can develop a culture of leadership within their organizations.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of supporting many physicians in their leadership development. Recently, I worked with Kristopher Pugh, MD, an ophthalmologist and managing partner at Dr. Black’s Eye Associates of Southern Indiana.

Here, Dr. Pugh shares his thoughts about physician leadership, its impact on his practice and his own development.

Laura Baldwin: Tell me about your role in the practice.

Kristopher Pugh, MD: I am a physician owner and managing partner. My week consists of four-and-a-half days of patient visits as well as surgical procedures. Planned administrative requirements include one evening and one lunch meeting per week, with 50% of Friday afternoons used for executive/budget meetings or fun administrative meetings like leadership development.

LB: What spurred you to seek out leadership development?

KP: For the first decade of my professional life, my growth as a leader was needs-based and reactive; whatever the challenges were, I dove in and learned as much as possible … but didn’t proactively anticipate what might be required. For many, this is normal — we learn as we go. As it turns out, it’s not the most efficient or impactful way. I recognized that, as a business owner, I needed to develop more leadership skills to direct our business and teams.

LB: What steps did you take to enhance your leadership capabilities?

KP: My initial steps included seeking out opportunities to learn more about leadership. I was invited to attend a leadership summit hosted by BSM Consulting in 2018, where I was immersed in concepts and given resources that helped me think differently about how to be an effective leader and change behaviors.

Once I returned to the practice, I immediately started practicing what I had learned and shared my knowledge with our leadership team, so that we could begin to plant the seeds of leadership development within our practice. Part of the takeaway from the summit was the importance of investing in all staff to create a culture that promotes leadership and positively impacts the organization — but it starts with me, as the physician leader.

LB: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

KP: Finding gaps in how I view myself and how others view me has been the driving factor behind my growth. I’ve mostly accomplished that by soliciting feedback from peers and staff to understand how I am performing as a leader and using that information to change behaviors. The 360-degree assessment I completed as part of the BSM summit helped me identify gaps between my self-perception and the perception of those around me. Seeking and being open to this type of feedback, along with asking for help in staying accountable to changes, has been a huge part of my growth.

Another critical lesson for me has been around the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) and how it is required for effective leadership. The most impactful essay I’ve found on the topic is titled “What Makes a Leader?” by Daniel Goleman ( ). Goleman’s research on EI has helped me understand what behaviors I need to focus on to be a better leader.

LB: How have you grown as a leader?

KP: One way I’ve learned more about myself is through a program called Insights Discovery, which is all about understanding personal preferences and styles. This can impact everything from communication and decision-making to relationships with others.

For example, I learned that one of my greatest strengths is observing and analyzing data, then using those observations to critically think and make recommendations. What I enjoy less is public speaking and networking to build new relationships. By understanding this about myself, I’m learning how to better leverage my strengths while simultaneously working on potential weaknesses.

LB: How has your leadership journey impacted the practice?

KP: Our organization is different now because we are developing leaders at every level in our business. While staying true to our mission of helping patients “see life clearly,” our internal goal is to invest money and time in all personnel to develop engaged and productive teams. This helps improve employee morale and productivity. As a result, we have invested in a personality profile for our 175-plus staff and physicians to provide a better understanding of themselves and others. While this is a gift to each employee, it pays dividends in terms of the success of our organization.

Additionally, learning more about others’ preferences and styles enables me to bring people into projects that can help bridge any of my gaps. For example, while I prefer to analyze all available data before making a decision, I’m aware how this can sometimes impede progress and delay action. Knowing this, I now make a conscious effort to pull in people who are outcome-oriented and can readily move projects forward. Rather than dispute this different working style, I now understand how the balance it provides ultimately helps us achieve results more efficiently.

LB: What advice about leadership development would you give young physicians today who are beginning their careers?

KP: While leadership development is always a work in progress, anyone from young doctors to seasoned practitioners can become a more effective leader with the right coaching. Knowing this, try to identify mentors who will support you and provide critical feedback. Coincidentally, my leadership training was a present from a mentor of mine, which I paid forward by gifting leadership training to a handful of graduating residents.

My hope is that this coaching will teach the next generation of physicians how their leadership — whether they become managing partners, owners or associates — shapes organizational success by helping practices build a culture of leadership. OM