Leadership: everyone talks about it, many people claim to be experts in it, and medical students and doctors are convinced they should be doing it.

It's a hot topic in healthcare, particularly at a time of change and increasing challenge for the NHS. Previously, leadership was seen as something for those far along in their healthcare careers. Recently though, younger generations of health professionals and students have flagged its importance.

This is why I launched The Healthcare Leadership Academy (HLA) in 2016. By focusing on the earliest stages of healthcare professionals' journeys, we've shifted the debate in healthcare from leadership being seen as just management, to focusing on the principles of leadership. We're also tackling the notion in medicine and the health service that leadership is the preserve of the few, based on clinical seniority or time served.

About the HLA

We're encouraging students and early-stage clinicians to challenge the way they think. The HLA is a year-long programme and platform fostering collaboration across healthcare fields and professions at all levels. Insights and sessions are provided by experts in a number of fields – politicians, philosophers, business people and academics, as well as healthcare leaders.

Alongside regular sessions, participants are supported in taking on individual and group projects, set within the context of their own day-to-day experience. We want to avoid artificial scenarios, and teach students how to lead in situations in which they would normally find themselves. Students also use our sessions, their HLA colleagues, mentors and resources to try to refine their ideas, challenge their own approach and learn lessons in a practical way that they can take forward in their future careers.

Through excellent leadership in healthcare, the future of healthcare systems will better serve the populations that rely on them.

You have to be able to bridge the gap, engage in discussion and find pragmatic solutions to problems through collaboration

Tips for being a better leader

It's never too early to start

I've held a number of positions over the past decade which have made me recognise how poorly prepared many clinicians are for leadership roles. Often, you are only encouraged to think about effective leadership when you're already in a fairly senior role and you may have already formed some pretty fixed views.

This is something I'm trying to change through The HLA, by encouraging students and early-stage clinicians who have an aptitude and interest in leadership to challenge the way they think and tackle problems they see within their context.

Be open to learning a range of skills

…even if they don't relate directly to your chosen specialty. Should skills like networking, and a basic understanding and interest in money and finance be part of the role of a doctor? I would argue that those who can understand how to read a profit and loss sheet, or put together a simple business model, have an important advantage.

Find likeminded peers

Developing a network is vital for any leader, and for students especially it's important to connect with their cohort, collaborate, and see each other as a source of inspiration, challenge and friendship.

Encouraging students to find support and inspiration in their peers also helps to dispel archaic notions that clinical seniority determines the value of your opinion. It helps even those starting out feel more confident in their decision-making – which is excellent training for all stages of leadership.

Be open to diversity

One individual does not have all the answers. For a leader to be effective, you have to be able to draw lessons and resources from as widely as possible. It's clear that there is much we can learn from a broad range of people and backgrounds.

Know how to deal with conflict

Even if you fundamentally disagree with a person or point of view, as a leader you have to be able to bridge the gap, engage in discussion and find pragmatic solutions to problems through collaboration. An extensive network and broad experience often also give you the strength to take a stand when you need to.

Look outside healthcare for inspiration

At the HLA, we urge scholars to learn lessons from other industries which draw on networks for support, a sounding board and a way to test ideas.

...but also learn about how the NHS works and how this applies to your practice

I've found that when you work as a doctor in the NHS you are rarely, if ever, encouraged to think about the wider context of the NHS – its deliverability, sustainability or how it functions. This seems odd when you stop and think about it. We are told from medical school that leadership is important; we're encouraged to write reflective pieces about it, but it's often in the abstract. Often, leadership is seen as an alternative to clinical practice – something that stops you from being a doctor. This is a mentality we're trying to challenge through The HLA.


This article was correct at publication on 03/05/2018. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Johann Malawana

Founder and director, The Healthcare Leadership Academy

Johann studied at Barts and The London, where he was president of the students' association for a term. He has held a number of management roles throughout his career, including Chair of the Junior Doctors Committee of the BMA. He founded The Healthcare Leadership Academy in 2016.

See more by Johann Malawana