Choosing the Leadership Path: It Takes a Mentor

A significant opportunity for improvement in my pursuit of a leadership role was enhancing my self-awareness. Years ago, I received feedback from trusted colleagues and managers that my approach to building a team, gaining consensus and affecting meaningful change was simply not working.

In contrast to what I thought was strong, confident professionalism and inclusivity, my behavior was perceived as autocratic, inflexible and self-serving. My well-intentioned thoughts and feelings were not always reflected in my words, tone of voice and non-verbal cues. Although I appreciated, respected and admired those around me, my style stood in the way of effectively communicating with others.

I was fortunate in that I had managers to provide mentorship and trusted colleagues who offered their honest appraisals. To this day, I constantly assess my behavior through internal monitoring, integrate fundamentals of emotional intelligence and recruit candid feedback from those same loyal colleagues from years ago.          

The glass ceiling

As Founder of the Women’s Physician Group at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Advocate Children’s Hospital – Park Ridge, I became part of a sorority of accomplished female physicians who were interested in creating opportunities to support, learn from and network with other female health care professionals. We soon recognized a need to mentor and guide young female residents who expressed frustration and confusion about how to advance in health care in an environment they perceived to be heavily influenced by men.

Women are inordinately underrepresented in prominent leadership roles(1) despite increasing enrollment numbers of women in medical school. Notwithstanding this seeming advantage, female physicians face more barriers in attaining high-level and executive positions when compared to their male colleagues, resulting in a leadership gap.

A popular and much-discussed reason for lackluster ascent is the proverbial collision between the tenure time clock and the biological time clock. Other reasons relate to issues that are difficult to quantitate, but invariably play a role in why female physicians find it hard to reach the executive suite: Inherent cultural, emotional, psychological and/or social barriers to achieving this type of traditionally defined success. How early in a physician’s career do these challenges begin to surface and/or thwart advancement? What are the corrective and supportive interventions needed to promote professional goal attainment?

On a more basic level, reaching the upper echelons of success may not be viewed as a viable objective by women. In part, this may be due to absent or ineffective mentorship and coaching, combined with an ambiguous understanding of what professionalism means.

Although viewed as a qualitative metric, mentorship is considered an important component in facilitating success among female physicians(2); female leadership and female promotion are linked through mentorship(3). For example, the likelihood of female physicians being hired and promoted in academic centers increases when the department chair is a woman(3). However, both male and female physicians must serve collaboratively as role models to create opportunities for younger females3.

Formalized mentorship

As principal investigator, I and a team of researchers at Advocate Health Care have created a three-year, system-wide, IRB-approved longitudinal research project that focuses on identifying and developing leadership skills, behaviors and attitudes in female residents in preparation for career success and advancement. The work is supported by a grant awarded by the James R. and Helen D. Russell Institute for Research and Innovation of Advocate Health Care, the largest integrated delivery network in Illinois. It received the 2016 Leape Ahead Award from the American Association for Physician Leadership.

The institute focuses on three key areas of leadership growth and development: professionalism, coaching and mentoring. In addition to didactic lectures and interactive workshops, each resident will be matched to a coach and a mentor. After the resident is assigned to a mentor, emphasis will be placed on cultivating more advanced skills and enhanced performance in preparation for future leadership.

Self-awareness, honesty and a sincere willingness to improve oneself are fundamental to authentic leadership. At Advocate Health Care, fostering these attitudes and behaviors are part of the focus of research dedicated to mentoring the next generation of female healthcare leaders.


  1. Gabriel, B.A. (2011). Lonely at the Top: Academic Medicine’s Women Leaders. AAMC Reporter. Retrieved from
  2. Northouse, P.G. (2012). Introduction to Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  3. Cherry, K. What is Emotional Intelligence? Psychology. Retrieved from
  4. Johns, M. L. (2013). Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Structural, Cultural, and Organizational Barriers Preventing Women from Achieving Senior and Executive Positions. Perspectives in Health Information Management / AHIMA, American Health Information Management Association, 10(Winter), 1e.
  5. Wietsma, A.C. (2014). Barriers to Success for Female Physicians in Academic Medicine. Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, 4, 1-3