Strategic leadership development for physicians

Posted on February 26, 2016
Strategic leadership development for physicians

Evaluation of the Physician Leadership Development Program at Schulich

By Peter Dickens, Sandra Fisman and Kathi Grossman

(The following is an excerpt from an article published in the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership, Vol. 2, No. 3 – Winter 2016.)

Spearheaded by the Ontario Medical Association and created by a number of dedicated individuals, the Physician Leadership Development Program has “changed the lives” of its participants. Results of a survey and interviews with physicians from the first four cohorts reveal the program’s key strengths and how it is beginning to have a significant impact on the province’s health care system.

In 1999, a dialogue began at the board of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) about the need for enhanced leadership skills among physicians across the province. Historically, medical school training contains little or no information on the subject, leaving physicians in leadership roles to fend for themselves and learn from their predecessors as best they can. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) offered specific skills development through its Physician Management Institute (PMI), but what was lacking, according to Dr. Janice Willett, past-president of the OMA, whom we had an opportunity to interview early in our research project, was formal training for leaders who could have an impact on the larger health system.

Despite some early resistance from board members who did not feel that leadership development was their mandate, the OMA set out to identify a respected provider who could develop and deliver a program that went beyond simply developing skills of participants to one that was focused on system transformation. They also preferred a “made in Ontario” solution and one that would ensure broad representation both geographically and based on physician specialty. According to Willett, they wanted to break away from the traditional system that focused on high-profile association members and seek out emerging leaders from across the province. From the beginning, they were intentional about limiting the involvement of board members and put a rigorous screening process in place.

Program design

After a lengthy process, the OMA, in partnership with the CMA, selected the Schulich School of Business at York University, through the Schulich ExecEd (Schulich ExecEd), to design and deliver the program. Designed by the late Brenda Zimmerman, the Physician Leadership Development Program (PLDP) had elements that lined up with the OMA’s desire for systems level leadership.

  • A complex, adaptive systems approach
  • Collaboration
  • A cohort-based learning environment
  • Self-reflection and mindfulness:
  • Action learning projects
  • Coaching

The purpose [of the survey and interviews of past participants] was to examine the impact of the PLDP on participating physicians in terms of individual self-awareness and reflective capacity as well as broad systems impact.


“I learned that ‘me [alone] as the leader’ wasn’t the answer. I had to form connections, build networks, and learn that building support was critical to any change initiative. I will never again just take on a change by myself!”
-PLDP Participant

The PLDP appears to have been a life-changing experience for many of the participants. Those who were involved in medical education lauded the structure of the program, and the many participants who had never had any form of leadership development are demonstrating ongoing commitment to the learning they acquired. The OMA has been front and centre in organizing annual reunions to provide ongoing education and support for alumni. In several locations, most notably Ottawa, graduates have self-organized into a learning group that continues to find new ways to work together. It would be worthwhile for the CMA and OMA to look for ways to extend the impact of this sort of program to reach a critical mass of physicians as change agents.

Peter Dickens, PhD, is a principal in the Iris Group, a consulting firm, and an adjunct professor at Tyndale University. Sandra Fisman, MBCh, FRCPC, is professor and chair, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University. Kathi Grossman, BA (Hons), MCPM, is senior program coordinator at the Schulich ExecEd (Schulich ExecEd). She is responsible for coordination and project management of the PLDP and other custom programs developed and organized through Schulich ExecEd.

The full text of this article is available as a PDF in the Winter 2016 edition of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership.