Shining the light on the dark side of medical leadership – a qualitative study in Australia

Erwin Loh, Jennifer Morris, Laura Thomas, Marie M Bismark, Grant Phelps, Helen Dickinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


The paper aims to explore the beliefs of doctors in leadership roles of the concept of “the dark side”, using data collected from interviews carried out with 45 doctors in medical leadership roles across Australia. The paper looks at the beliefs from the perspectives of doctors who are already in leadership roles themselves; to identify potential barriers they might have encountered and to arrive at better-informed strategies to engage more doctors in the leadership of the Australian health system. The research question is: “What are the beliefs of medical leaders that form the key themes or dimensions of the negative perception of the ‘dark side’?”.

The paper analysed data from two similar qualitative studies examining medical leadership and engagement in Australia by the same author, in collaboration with other researchers, which used in-depth semi-structured interviews with 45 purposively sampled senior medical leaders in leadership roles across Australia in health services, private and public hospitals, professional associations and health departments. The data were analysed using deductive and inductive approaches through a coding framework based on the interview data and literature review, with all sections of coded data grouped into themes.

Medical leaders had four key beliefs about the “dark side” as perceived through the eyes of their own past clinical experience and/or their clinical colleagues. These four beliefs or dimensions of the negative perception colloquially known as “the dark side” are the belief that they lack both managerial and clinical credibility, they have confused identities, they may be in conflict with clinicians, their clinical colleagues lack insight into the complexities of medical leadership and, as a result, doctors are actively discouraged from making the transition from clinical practice to medical leadership roles in the first place.

Research limitations/implications
This research was conducted within the Western developed-nation setting of Australia and only involved interviews with doctors in medical leadership roles. The findings are therefore limited to the doctors’ own perceptions of themselves based on their past experiences and beliefs. Future research involving doctors who have not chosen to transition to leadership roles, or other health practitioners in other settings, may provide a broader perspective. Also, this research was exploratory and descriptive in nature using qualitative methods, and quantitative research can be carried out in the future to extend this research for statistical generalisation.

Practical implications
The paper includes implications for health organisations, training providers, medical employers and health departments and describes a multi-prong strategy to address this important issue.

This paper fulfils an identified need to study the concept of “moving to the dark side” as a negative perception of medical leadership and contributes to the evidence in this under-researched area. This paper has used data from two similar studies, combined together for the first time, with new analysis and coding, looking at the concept of the “dark side” to discover new emergent findings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-330
Number of pages18
JournalLeadership in Health Services
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2016

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