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Effective physician leaders: an appreciative inquiry into their qualities, capabilities and learning approaches
  1. Mairi Savage1,
  2. Marie Höjriis Storkholm1,2,
  3. Pamela Mazzocato1,
  4. Carl Savage1
  1. 1 Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
  2. 2 Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Aarhus University Hospital, Aarhus, Denmark
  1. Correspondence to Dr Carl Savage, Medical Management Centre, Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics , Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm 171 77, Sweden; carl.savage{at}


Purpose The aim of this study was to explore the qualities and capabilities effective physician leaders attribute to their success in leading change and how they developed these.

Method The authors interviewed 20 emerging and senior leaders using a semistructured interview guide informed by appreciative inquiry. Data were subjected to an inductive qualitative content analysis to identify themes related to qualities, capabilities and learning approaches.

Results The qualities identified were clarity of purpose to improve care, endurance, a positive outlook and authenticity. They were considered innate or developed during participants’ upbringing. Capabilities were to ground management in medicine, engage others, catalyse systems by acting on interdependencies and employ a scientific approach to understand problems and measure progress. Capabilities were developed through cross-pollination from a diversity of work experiences, reflection, when education was integrated with practice and when their organisational environment nurtured ambition and learning.

Conclusions This study reframes current leadership thinking by empirically identifying qualities, capabilities, and learning approaches that can contribute to effective physician leadership. Instead of merely adapting leadership development programmes from other domains, this study suggests there are capabilities unique to effective physician leadership: ground management in medicine and employ a scientific approach to problem identification and solution development. The authors outline practical implications for individuals and organisations to support leader development as a cohesive organisational strategy for learning and change.

  • medical leadership
  • competencies
  • development
  • clinical leadership
  • learning

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

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  • Presented at Portions of the preliminary analyses were presented at the Swedish Healthcare Leadership Academy (Sjukvårdens Ledarskapsakademi), 2 December 2015, Stockholm, Sweden, and in leadership courses for medical students at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, taught by the authors during 2015 and 2016.

  • Twitter @SavageCarl

  • Contributors MS and CS designed the study, recruited participants and collected the data. MS, MHS, PM and CS conducted the analyses. MS drafted the manuscript. MS and CS rewrote and revised the study with invaluable input from MHS and PM. All authors read, contributed to and approved the final manuscript. CS was the principal investigator and submitted the study.

  • Funding MS was financially supported by a grant from AFA Insurance (#150162), with additional financial support for MS and CS from the Torsten Söderberg Foundation (#ET4/12). PM was supported by a grant from the Strategic Research Area Health Care Science, Karolinska Institutet/Umeå University.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the Stockholm Regional Ethical Vetting Board (2015/197-31/5).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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