Intended for healthcare professionals


Academic doctors overestimate their leadership skills, researchers find

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 24 May 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2968
  1. Matthew Limb, freelance journalist
  1. BMJ Careers
  1. limb{at}

Medical academics overestimate their leadership skills, according to new research which says that they may need more formal leadership education.

A study found that self perception of leadership behaviour was “overinflated” while there were no significant links between particular leadership styles and healthcare research performance.

Corresponding author Vanash Patel said, “We were aiming to link performance and leadership but I think there were probably other factors that contributed to academic performance—more contextual factors—that we couldn’t measure.”

The research, published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, involved 90 faculty of medicine professors at Imperial College, London.1

The authors of the study said that it was the first to link self perceptions of leadership to objective research performance metrics.

Professors were asked to describe their leadership styles in a “self perception” questionnaire, identifying with attributes of “transformational,” “transactional,” or “passive/avoidant” leadership.

Academic performance was measured in the number of publications, citations and “h” index they achieved between 2007 and 2009.

The researchers said that there was some evidence from for profit sectors, such as banking, that transformational leadership was linked to individual and organisational success.

This so called “contemporary” leadership style was associated with identifying the need for change and creating vision among followers through inspiration and motivation.

By contrast, transactional leadership involved rewards and reprimands based on performance, while passive avoidant leaders were more non-interventionalist, acting only when significant problems occurred.

More than half of respondents “scored above the normal samples” for attributes of transformational leadership, said Patel, who is a clinical research fellow at St Mary’s Hospital, London.

But no significant relationships were found between the three leadership styles and healthcare research performance.

Researchers also measured the outcomes of leadership—to see if academics felt their leadership was efficient in terms of motivation, effectiveness, and satisfaction.

Patel said that less than half of respondents met the normal samples for effective leadership.

He said, “Perhaps the professors are not as transformational as they would like to think they are or should be. And maybe this is one of the reasons that there was no link with the research performance metrics.”

Patel said, “The take home message is probably that we need more formal leadership education.”

The authors said that it was possible that the professors “found it easier” to rate themselves higher on leadership behaviours because these were harder to objectively quantify than leadership outcomes.

But one limitation was that they only measured an individual’s research performance “so we could not determine the effect of leadership on research teams or the organisation.”

Future research should use a wider assessment of leadership to “diminish the bias of self perception,” said the authors.