Thought leadership

Emotional Intelligence as Critical to the Success of the Medical Director

Emotional Intelligence as Critical to the Success of the Medical Director

As part of supporting overall organizational wellbeing, high-impact physician leaders and their organizations are investing more time in the development and enhancement of “emotional intelligence” or EI. Research shows that high EI maps to high personal, team and organizational performance, as well as career satisfaction and less burnout for physician leaders and their teams.

What is EI and how can an organization enhance it?

The call for more effective collaboration

While their colleagues may consider some physician leaders to be “collaboratively challenged,” many healthcare organizations give relatively little attention to collaboration in the traditional processes of physician education and leadership career development.[1] Further, their training has encouraged physicians to develop as “lone healers” and independent decision makers, perhaps reflecting that those attracted to and selected for careers in medicine characteristically display independence, self-direction and confidence.[2] As an additional complication, many health-care systems are structured like silos or fiefdoms, undermining both opportunities and incentives for collaboration.[3],[4]

To expand the effectiveness of physician alignment for integrated care systems and value-based contracting, health systems are making substantial investments. Examples include the development of medical directorships,[5] physician leadership academies,[6] and supporting membership in such professional organizations as the American Association for Physician Leadership.[7] The essence of these investments, however, must leverage enhanced understanding of the emotional intelligence of physician leaders.


Physician Leaders: Recognizing and managing emotions

Leadership development models describe emotional intelligence as the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as to recognize and coach others on management of theirs. Emotional intelligence includes at least three skills: 

  1. Emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions;
  2. The ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and
  3. The ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same.[8]

Healthcare leaders are recognizing that EI is essential to effective physician leaders as champions for teamwork and collaborative, patient-centered care delivery.[9] Some organizations long have targeted EI as an essential competency in such leadership development programs as the Cleveland Clinic's, which has generated innovative business plans to improve care delivery.[10] Mayo Clinic's program is another example, providing specialized support to participants to help them apply their new skills and insights productively within their institutions.[11]


Five Actions Can Enhance EI in Medical Directors

1. Clarify the case for medical directorship

Unfortunately, many organizations have applied the medical director title almost randomly. As these organization acquire private practices and employ additional physicians, the senior clinician in each practice often is named a medical director and compensated for that administrative role, without clarity regarding the role and responsibilities. Step 1, then is to decide what areas of the organization require a medical director, such as practice sites, service lines, geographic components of the system. Step 2, determine the responsibilities of each role to include the blend of administrative and clinical roles. Step 3, decide how to evaluate performance. A written job description will assure that both the medical director and those he or she directs clearly understand the role.

2. Establish the competency profile for superior performance, to include balance of hard and soft dimensions

After determining the medical director job performance and expectations, leaders must identify essential competencies for superior performance. While clinical expertise often is considered to be a “qualification” for a medical directorship, the skill sets needed for superior performance in that role are much more diverse:

  • Basic familiarity with budgeting and financial management
  • Understanding strategic planning processes
  • Personnel management, including constructive feedback and formal performance evaluation
  • Conflict management at both the individual and organizational levels
  • Team-building skills
  • Quality, safety and efficiency measurement and improvement

3. Invest in longitudinal and multi-media leadership development programming built around principles and practices of EI

The competencies outlined above generally are not part of a physician’s medical education, although some may acquire them through experience.[12] Organizational wellbeing benefits from investing in leadership development training for all medical directors and other physician leaders. The best such programs fit the culture and strategic goals of the organization, and help each leader acquire both the hard and soft skills—including EI—necessary for superior performance.


4. Assess the EI profile of all physician leaders and their dyad partners

Several widely-used instruments exist for assessing emotional intelligence.[13] Completion of such an inventory should be an expectation of any candidate for a medical director role, as well as for any individual already serving in that capacity. Such an assessment, when coupled with an individualized plan for further development, can be of tremendous value in helping medical directors gain both the skills and self-understanding essential to their success. In organizations employing dyad management teams, both the physician and his or her administrative partner should participate in such assessment.


5. Recognize and reward EI mastery

Both private and public recognition for completing the organization’s leadership development training, accomplishing key organizational and individual goals, and meeting performance expectations provide tremendous value in reinforcing the importance of EI. Feedback on such activities, and plans and expectations for further personal development, should be a routine part of every medical director performance evaluation. Further promotions or expansion of responsibilities should be coupled, at least in part, to the individual’s EI mastery.


Where does your organization stand?

These five steps can serve as a blueprint for effectively improving the skills of medical directors and other physician leaders. Wise organizations recognize the need to hire for, and develop, EI in physician leaders as a strategy to support overall organizational wellbeing. How will you enhance your medical directorships to help your organization face the future with confidence?


Contact Gallagher to discuss how your organization can benefit from better strategy and training to support emotional intelligence in physician leaders:




[1] See: and also: Stoller JK. Can physicians collaborate? A review of organizational development in healthcare. OD Pract. 2004;36:19–24

[2] See: Gabbard GO. The role of compulsiveness in the normal physician. JAMA. 1985;254(20):2926–2929.doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03360200078031

[3] Weisbord MR. Organizational Diagnosis: A Workbook of Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Basic Books; 1978

[4] Weil TP. Difficulties in consummating a meaningful hospital-physician collaboration. J Med Pract Manage. 2012;28(1):47–50

[10] Stoller JK, Berkowitz E, Bailin PL. Physician management and leadership education at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation: program impact and experience over 14 years. J Med Pract Manage. 2007;22(4):237–242.

[11] Viggiano TR, Pawlina W, Lindor KD, Olsen KD, Cortese DA. Putting the needs of the patient first: Mayo Clinic's core value, institutional culture, and professionalism covenant. Acad Med. 2007;82(11):1089–1093. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181575dcd.

[12] Jessee, William F., Physician leadership; stuff they don’t teach in medical schools, Integrated Healthcare Strategies, September, 2014


[13] See for example: /;

William F. Jessee

William F. Jessee, MD, FACMPE joined Integrated Healthcare Strategies, now a part of the Gallagher Human Resources & Compensation Consulting practice in October, 2011, after serving for more than 12 years as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). He also holds an academic appointment as Clinical Professor of Health Systems Management and Policy at the University of Colorado School of Public Health.

Dr. Jessee is one of the nation’s leading ...

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James A. Rice

Jim Rice, PhD, FACHE is the Managing Director & Practice Leader with the Governance & Leadership service line of Gallagher’s Human Resources & Compensation Consulting practice. He focuses his consulting work on strategic governance structures and systems for high performing, tax-exempt nonprofit, credit union and health sector organizations and integrated care systems; visioning for large and small not-for-profit organizations; and leadership development for Boards and C-Suite Senior Leaders. 

Dr. Rice holds masters and doctoral degrees in ...

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