Great Books to Mold Great Leaders

No Comments

Non-medical reading material to improve and expand your skills in management

There are numerous ways to gain the skill set to be an effective physician leader. This includes on the job training, having a mentor, attending conferences, and self study (reading about the topic). I’ve found that these methods complement each other and you can’t reach your peak effectively without some combination of all of them. Although I attended numerous medical director conferences early in my career and had two fantastic mentors, I really felt my learning curve skyrocketed when I stumbled upon a book my wife was reading on leadership. The lessons in this book spoke to me and I found that I could apply them to my clinical practice as well as my role as an assistant director. One of the leadership and management secrets I thought I discovered was to look for experts and stories outside of medicine. Something I hadn’t considered as I went to medical director conferences.

Go into any bookstore and there are literally hundreds of books on leadership and management. While everyone has their own preferences and styles, here are the 15 books that I’ve found from outside of medicine to be most applicable and enjoyable to read for the roles that we fill as medical directors.


Great Authors
You can rarely go wrong when you read great authors and New York Times best-sellers. Malcolm Gladwell has numerous books that overlap with our world. Blink gives insight into the advantages and pitfalls of how we thin-slice through a busy chart rack (For related article, click here). The seasoned physician brings a gestalt that is both “deliberate and instinctive.” In The Tipping Point, Gladwell offers theory and explanation about how three rules (“of epidemics”) can foster behavioral change. After all, chairmen cannot create change themselves. Most people I know have read Outliers, which describes the complexities that impact success Gladwell made famous the 10,000-Hour Rule—mastery of a subject requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Although recently research has shown that there is more to achieving expertise than practice, I’ve found this rule applicable to new attendings just out of residency. They typically need an additional couple of years of real life working before they’re as effective and efficient as an experienced doc. You may not have read any books by Patrick Lencioni. He teaches by writing fables and the lessons are pointed out more creatively throughout the book. The Five Dysfunctions of Team and Death by Meeting are two of my favorites. Working with others, building a team, and having quality, interesting meetings that achieve outcomes are not skills we learn in residency (for related article, click here).

There are just some books that medical directors should be aware of because they’re considered classics and most of the business world has read them, including your CEO. It’s just necessary to speak the same language sometimes. First in this list is the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I use this book in a leadership class I teach and I find that the class is usually split between loving it or not. In terms of transformation leadership, Good to Great by Jim Collins, became almost an instant classic on management theory when it was released in 2001. The building blocks of greatness are discussed and case studies of specific “great” companies and how they differentiate themselves from their competitors are quantified and analyzed. Collins coined the term Level 5 leader which is the small percentage of leaders who have climbed the leadership ladder and are able to “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” Finally, and maybe not a true classic because it was published in 2006, The Speed of Trust, also by Covey, discusses the importance of establishing and maintaining credibility through core competencies related to character and competency.

The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem really started me on this journey. These are stories of people who had success or failure during a critical journey and then the author analyzes the situations to teach the lessons. I’ve written about this book before and it’s on the short list of books that I re-read (for related article, click here). On the opposite spectrum in terms of style is The Extraordinary Leader by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman. Honestly, this is one of the more text-book like reads of all the books highlighted, but I think the research makes the argument that leaders can be made, that leaders can identify and maximize their leadership qualities, and helps leaders recognize their strengths and ultimately makes the argument that it’s more important to build on strengths rather than spend most of your time trying to improve your weaknesses. The authors discuss the competencies that are necessary to be a leader, the impact of fatal flaws, and then the relationship between 90th percentile leaders and outcomes versus others. What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith is another good read that should lead to your own self-reflection on strengths and weaknesses and perhaps what’s keeping you from moving to that next promotion.


Human Resources
Another entertaining yet implementable tomorrow book is The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton. I’ve taken the lessons taught in this book and put them into use when I recruit. Not surprisingly, it may only take one jerk to ruin a team and these same jerks end up taking the most administrative time. Lesson 1 is to use the interview time and the reference phone calls to avoid hiring one of them. The medical director job calls for a skill set in coaching and mentoring that many of us don’t innately have either. Since hospitals are inevitably filled with some strong personalities, and at least 1-2 people who fail Sutton’s “Asshole Test,” having a plan for interacting with this people successfully is critical. As a chairman, we all have conversations and interactions with people that are not easy. Many of us put them off or just don’t have them because we don’t have a plan or strategy to successfully handle the difficult conversation (for related article, click here). Voila, Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone. The author walks through the typical difficult conversation that includes assigning “blame,” where we should start with the goal of establishing each party’s “contribution,” and then finally getting to a conversation about process and learning.

Managing people is a very different skill than leadership. While medical directors need to be leaders, which requires having and implementing a vision, managers define tasks, nurture skills and define talents. The ability to work with your team and the teams throughout the hospital requires considerable emotional intelligence. While high IQ is a basic requisite for a good hire, your star docs, and certainly and star leaders, will have a higher emotional quotient, or EQ. Many leadership books discuss the beneficial impact of a high EQ as well. Daniel Coleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence is just the book to define and explain the topic, how to improve what you have, and how to use it (for related article, click here).

Patient Satisfaction
There are plenty of good books geared towards improving patient satisfaction within the medical community. Going into the business world, one of my favorites is Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service by Kristin Anderson and Ron Zemke. Focusing on service recovery and showing the economic impact of dissatisfied customers and how little it can cost to win them back, this book is one of several in a series of “Knock Your Socks Off” books by Zemke. If nothing else, most of us are interested in growing our volume since it ultimately generates more physician revenue. Providing good service is one way to grow volume and this is a great book to learn from.

Reading list w


Getting education from books outside of medicine is an integral component of learning management skills. I love to read, there are tons of great books to choose from and many of the above mentioned books can be read cover to cover on a cross country flight. With the exception of Lencioni’s fables, most use research (often done by the authors) and case studies to make their points. There is overlap on many topics in these books as well but rarely is their contradiction. While this short list can’t cover every topic or every book I like, I think these books compliment the skill set that needs to be developed as a medical director.



EXECUTIVE EDITOR Dr. Silverman is Chair of Emergency Medicine at VHC Health. He also taught a leadership development course for over a decade. Dr. Silverman’s practical wisdom is available in an easy-to-use reference guide, available on Amazon. Follow on Twitter @drmikesilverman

Leave A Reply