Five Steps to Becoming a Leader in Sports Medicine

Bert R. Mandelbaum, MD, DHL (Hon)


February 28, 2019

Not all of us thought about becoming leaders when we chose to become sports physicians. But our job description always requires leadership.

You must lead your patients out of the health problems that brought them to you. You must lead your office and the enterprises with which you are associated by achieving financial success. You must lead your professional organizations to improve the field of sports medicine. And you must lead in the efforts to improve public health, doing your part to address such problems as mass shootings, opioid abuse, and climate change.

As with any skill, we can improve our leadership with conscious effort. The first step is to understand the difference between leadership and management. Leaders deal with change, and look to the future. Managers deal with maintenance and focus on the present.

The next step is to work on each of the five components of leadership: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and courage.


As a leader, you have to understand yourself, your moods, and your emotions and how they impact others. They affect every relationship you have as a physician, from your office staff to every patient, from the moment you open the door to the time you leave.

The great management consultant Peter Drucker advised, "Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action."[1]

Self-awareness is also essential to self-confidence, because it means being realistic, and at times even self-deprecating. You must know when to laugh at yourself.


Self-regulation means controlling yourself in all circumstances. It means knowing the right measure of response and adhering to a code of conduct oriented to your compass north. In regulating yourself, you must keep the ability to build trustworthy relationships, because the only constant in life is change.


While maintaining self-regulation, you must also stoke the fires of your passion. Never forget the dreams that most inspire you. If you can keep them in mind while cultivating an optimistic, can-do attitude, then you will inspire others to follow.


Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, pinpointed a key moment in the evolution of humanity when studying femur fractures of ancient skeletons. People apparently died with these fractures unhealed until about 15,000 years ago. It was at that time, she found, that societies began to care enough to heal each other. That sort of caring means building relationships with multiple people at the same time, and focusing on concerns beyond helping ourselves.[2]

And empathy brings rewards. The poet Tagore once wrote, "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy."[3]


Many people fear change. Physicians fear the challenge of electronic medical records, new types of practice, new treatment protocols, and the implications of scientific research. We fear new policies and procedures that come from payers and regulators, hospitals, and medical groups. But we can't avoid these shifts in our world. Instead, we have to face them, understand them, and adapt.

Putting Principles Into Practice

The next step in becoming a leader is applying these principles to the hierarchy of our profession.

First, become capable as a practitioner. Fine-tune the knowledge, skills, and values you need to heal your patients.

Second, know your role as a team member. How do you fit into a group in the hospital, as a physician for a sports team, or as a researcher in multicenter studies? Remember that Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM).

Third, become a competent manager. Though leadership encompasses much more than management, leaders cannot ignore the responsibilities of managers. Learn how to organize the people around you, especially your employees, to meet your practice's immediate goals.

Fourth, keep a meaningful purpose in mind, and articulate your vision and mission. A concise and compelling mission can motivate a group to work at the highest level.

Fifth, learn how to synthesize all the elements of leadership with both humility and determination. In this way, you can lead your organization to face its next challenges.

When we head into a new year, there is always talk of resolutions. There are a lot of things we can't control. But if you control the things you can, you will be prepared for the things you can't.

Physicians often feel isolated and disenfranchised, not part of a cohesive society or a group. We're not meant to be that way. All human beings, including physicians, are inherently social. We're meant to work together. By reaching out as leaders to empower others and improve our field, we will help ourselves.

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