Physician Leaders Reflect: Profound Lessons from Their Leadership Journeys or… “What I know now that I wish I knew then.”

By: Kurt Scott | Lynn Welling, MD | Elsie Koh MD | Paul DeChant MD | Mark Schnitzer MD

Introduction: The journey from practicing medicine to becoming a healthcare leader is a complex and transformative process filled with invaluable lessons. To illuminate this path, we have engaged with prominent physician leaders who have made remarkable contributions to the field. Their generous insights offer aspiring leaders a deeper understanding of the challenges and rewards of this journey.

Lynn Welling Dr. Lynn Welling, MD, FACEP: The Power of Relationships and Intentional Leadership

Dr. Lynn Welling’s distinguished career spans from flying jets off aircraft carriers, commanding hospitals in austere environments to overseeing complex healthcare systems, which has provided him with profound insights into the essence of leadership. Let’s delve deeper into his wisdom:

  1. Every Interaction Matters: Dr. Welling’s realization that every interaction holds the potential to create lasting relationships is a lesson he wished he’d known earlier. In the early stages of his leadership career, he was primarily task-focused, often overlooking the human element. His growth as a leader came with recognizing that relationships formed through these interactions are vital for achieving goals efficiently.
  2. The Value of Solid Relationships: The significance of cultivating robust relationships is a cornerstone of Dr. Welling’s leadership philosophy. He elaborates on the profound benefits of these connections. Beyond professional collaboration, solid relationships enrich one’s career and personal life, fostering a sense of belonging and mutual support.
  3. Moving with Intention: Dr. Welling emphasizes the concept of moving with intention and preparation in one’s career journey. While embracing each moment is essential, having a strategic plan can expedite progress. He advises that setting clear goals and crafting a well-defined strategy can help individuals achieve milestones more effectively.
  4. Grow Where You Are Planted: Dr. Welling’s counsel on the importance of learning from every job, even those initially perceived as unfavorable, is crucial. He underscores that each experience contributes to one’s skill set and reputation. Being willing to say “yes” to tasks beyond your comfort zone can establish you as a dedicated team player.
  5. Building and Utilizing Teams: Dr. Welling highlights the transition from a hands-on clinician to an executive leader. As physicians climb the leadership ladder, they must empower others to lead at the frontline. Effective leadership, in his view, involves creating a culture where leaders at all levels are motivated, autonomous, and aligned with the organization’s vision.
  6. Becoming a Total Leader: His perspective on becoming a “total leader” extends beyond clinical expertise. Understanding the various aspects of healthcare administration, from budgeting to marketing, equips physicians to influence the broader healthcare landscape positively.
  7. The Importance of Engagement: Engagement, Dr. Welling asserts, is a linchpin of effective leadership. Leaders must actively address issues and concerns rather than brushing them aside. A dissatisfied workforce can be a significant barrier to progress, making engagement a top priority.
  8. Taking Ownership: Finally, he stresses the concept of taking complete ownership of processes and outcomes. Regardless of external challenges, leaders must own the mission and lead their teams with accountability, leaving no room for excuses.

Dr. Elsie Koh, MD Dr. Elsie Koh, MD, MHL, FSIR: Preparing for the Unforeseen Path of Leadership

Dr. Elsie Koh’s journey from a medical practitioner to the Chief Medical Officer of American Endovascular & Amputation Prevention highlights the importance of early leadership preparation. Let’s explore her insights in greater detail:

Awareness of Leadership as a Career Path: Dr. Koh candidly shares that leadership was not on her radar early in her medical career. She wishes she had known sooner that leadership could be a viable and rewarding career path for physicians. This revelation led her to create the LEAD Physician program, designed to equip physicians with the necessary leadership skills.

Recognizing the Need for Skills: Dr. Koh’s experiences in leadership roles underscore the importance of acquiring essential leadership skills. She admits to struggling initially due to a lack of knowledge about these critical skills. She urges early-career physicians to identify these skills and seek out the resources and training necessary to develop them.

The Role of Training and Mentorship: Dr. Koh underscores the significance of leadership training, education, and mentorship. These resources are instrumental in providing physicians with the tools and knowledge required to excel in leadership roles. Mentorship, in particular, can offer invaluable guidance and accelerate one’s growth as a leader.

Paul DeChant Dr. Paul F. DeChant, MD, MBA, FAAFP: Trusting Your Unique Perspective

Dr. Paul F. DeChant, a family physician, prior CEO of a 300-physician group, and thought leader dedicated to reducing physician burnout, emphasizes the importance of trusting your unique perspective as a physician leader. Here, we dive deeper into his insights:

Trusting Your Gut: Dr. DeChant encourages physicians to trust their instincts when embarking on leadership roles. He distinguishes between those who pursue leadership for the desire to drive positive change in healthcare and those who are primarily motivated by financial gain or prestige. Physicians, he asserts, possess a profound understanding of the healthcare system’s intricacies, making their clinical perspective invaluable.

Seeking Resources: To enhance leadership skills, Dr. DeChant recommends seeking out various resources. These resources can include attending relevant events, participating in leadership training, connecting with mentors, and pursuing further education in leadership-related areas. Learning from successful leaders who share a passion for improving healthcare can provide critical insights.


Mark Schnitzer Dr. Mark S. Schnitzer, MD, CPHQ, CHCQM-PHYADV, FACS, FACHE: A Holistic Approach to Physician Leadership

Dr. Mark S. Schnitzer’s multifaceted career, spanning neurosurgery to healthcare administration, offers a holistic perspective on physician leadership. Here, we explore his insights in greater depth:

Learning from Experience: Dr. Schnitzer advises younger physicians to seek wisdom from experienced leaders. He suggests asking seasoned mentors four essential questions: What actions did they take at a similar career stage that they are pleased with? What decisions do they regret? What opportunities do they wish they had pursued? Lastly, how did long-term engagement in specific activities shape their careers?

Being Authentic and Self-Aware: Authenticity and self-awareness, Dr. Schnitzer argues, are foundational qualities in leadership. Physicians must reflect on their motivations, goals, and values to lead effectively.

Continuous Learning: He places great emphasis on continuous learning. Physicians should consider pursuing advanced degrees, explore areas like process improvement, and expand their expertise beyond clinical practice. These initiatives enable them to make a more substantial impact as leaders.

Considering Relocation: Dr. Schnitzer underscores the readiness to relocate for career advancement. Physicians often remain rooted in one location, while administrative roles may require mobility to ascend the leadership ladder.

Transforming Healthcare: He challenges physicians to transform healthcare by understanding the broader cultural and process improvement aspects. Clinicians can play a pivotal role in reshaping the healthcare landscape by advocating for evidence-based practices and patient-centric care.

Coaching and Mentoring: Finally, Dr. Schnitzer advocates for mentorship and coaching. Seeking guidance and support from mentors who inspire you can significantly accelerate leadership development.

Dr. Katie Cole Dr. Katie Sofia Cole, D.O., F.A.A.P:Embracing Servant Leadership”

Dr. Cole is Physician Executive and Well-Being Change Leader. She is a pioneer in bringing the medical community together to spark change and unify standards across our national healthcare system. Here are just a few of her top leadership insights:


Embracing a Servant Leadership Style: Dr. Cole believes this is the most effective style of leadership. A successful leader is able to attract, retain, engage and inspire the best people. By adopting a leadership paradigm of trusting and inspiring others, one of a growth mindset, a leader is then able to build solid relationships, develop capabilities and talent, while investing in people.

Creating a Culture of Trust and Inspire: Innovation occurs at the speed of Trust- in order to promote a culture with innovation, collaboration and inclusion, trust is foundational.  A leader must model authentic behavior with humility and courage.  This in turn helps to build trust over time, which then inspires innovation, progress, and productivity.

Leadership Development: Dr. Cole also believes that in order to be an excellent leader, one must be committed to continued education whether it be coaching, mentoring, or training throughout one’s career. It is absolutely imperative to be open to feedback, and then also being willing to adapt or change in order to bring out the best in everyone. Understanding personality types and the dynamics of communication can greatly improve team collaboration as well as build trust. Leadership Development also applies to everyone else on a team as well- Dr. Cole strives to help her team members/staff/colleagues also be the best leaders they can be.


The collective wisdom of these physician leaders offers profound insights into the intricate journey of becoming a healthcare leader. Their experiences illuminate the importance of relationships, intentionality, early preparation, trust in one’s unique perspective, and adopting a holistic approach to leadership. These insights are indispensable for emerging healthcare leaders, guiding them towards impactful and meaningful leadership roles. Leadership is not merely a position; it’s an ongoing commitment to growth.