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Family physician leaders share their 10 keys to success.

Fam Pract Manag. 2021;28(5):6-9

This content conforms to AAFP criteria for CME.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations.

The title of “physician” has long been synonymous with “leader” in our communities and institutions, but the opportunities for physician leadership are expanding. The traditional role of medical team leader is evolving to the new role of director (officially or not) of population-based health, quality improvement, and the like. With the gradual shift to value-based care, it is also becoming more common for physicians to serve as leaders of hospitals and health systems, even as CEOs.13 In fact, higher ranked hospitals are more likely to be run by CEOs who are physicians by training.4

Despite the assumption that physicians will lead and lead well, leadership skills are not always explicitly taught or standardized in training programs. In recognition of that, more medical schools and residencies are offering leadership development options, from certificates in physician executive training to dual-degree MD-MBA programs.4 Equipping more family physicians for leadership roles throughout the health care system is critical not only for the specialty but also for patients, who benefit when organizations are focused on comprehensive, coordinated, and person-focused care — the hallmarks of family medicine.

To quantify family physician representation in “C-suites” of health systems nationally and to determine what skills and experiences position family medicine leaders for success, the Robert Graham Center of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) collaborated to identify family physicians serving as executive leaders in large health systems, health-care-related philanthropic organizations, academic health systems, and large health payers. From the hundreds of family physician leaders identified, three were selected for interviews to elucidate the skills and behaviors essential to being an effective physician leader today.


  • Family physicians are well-suited for executive leadership in health care organizations given their breadth of thinking, relationships with patients, and ability to work with and understand multiple specialties.

  • The best leaders have solid analytic skills, financial and business management knowledge, strong interpersonal skills, and an ability to package and present information.

  • Knowing how to build a solid team, being well connected, and being a good family physician are also key.


The three physician executive leaders interviewed had dramatically different career trajectories, with each position requiring them to wear multiple hats.

Jerry Kruse, MD, MSPH, is dean and provost of Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine and CEO of SIU Medicine. Early on, he did not envision a career as a physician executive leader; however, mentors along the way saw leadership qualities in him, particularly an ability to organize information and persuade people. Over the years, he has practiced full-spectrum family medicine, worked as a residency program director, and served as chair of the Department of Family Medicine at SIU. This led to involvement with national groups such as the Association of Departments of Family Medicine (ADFM), the Academic Family Medicine Advocacy Committee, and the Council on Graduate Medical Education, which makes recommendations to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and to Senate and House committees.

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