July 11, 2013

Leadership Education for Pharmacists

by Ryan Costantino, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

In sports, business, politics, or healthcare, leadership is a highly sought after character trait. Over the past several years I have repeatedly heard “Pharmacy needs to train more leaders.”  Interest in training and developing leaders has been mentioned by Harvey A.K. Whitney Award recipients1, in a Rho Chi Lecture2, and it appears several times in the current ACPE accreditation standards.3 While the need for leadership education and training is clear, the best method to train leaders in pharmacy is not.

Articles or reports published in scholarly journals that specifically address leadership education for pharmacy students are sparse.4,5  Boyle and colleagues describe an elective course implemented to develop pharmacy students’ leadership and political advocacy. Course evaluations from the elective identified benefits including building public-speaking skills, debating skills, increasing confidence at business functions, and networking.  The authors also report that students sought leadership positions after completing the course and felt a sense of empowerment with increased confidence to become more involved in organizations as leaders and advocates.

From an instructional design standpoint, Boyle and colleagues designed their course well. It had clearly stated objectives and used a variety of assessment methods that required students to verbally discuss and debate issues as well as summarize their course experience in a written reflective paper. The course also had an experiential component that required students to participate in various professional organizations or activities. I believe an experiential component is essential for any leadership education program because leadership is more than having knowledge or skills. It’s also the ability to act at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way to exert influence.

Another manuscript that described leadership education was published by Sorensen and colleagues from the University of Minnesota.  The course included didactic, experiential, and self directed learning activities. It focused on developing core leadership skills, self-awareness, and awareness of the process for leading change. The authors used activities such as StengthsFinder®, and reputable books such as Our Iceberg is Melting to augment the classroom-based activities. Course evaluations by the students were generally positive and students rated the activities in the course moderately to very useful. The authors also stated that evaluations from both students and practicing pharmacists suggested that the course could serve as an effective tool in preparing students to lead change when they enter the profession.

Both of these courses appear to have been constructed with sound principles of instructional design in mind.  They incorporated a variety of didactic classes and experiential experiences to convey knowledge regarding leadership.  However, on the negative side, both courses relied heavily on course evaluations from student to evaluate course effectiveness.

After searching the literature regarding leadership education, it’s clear that there is a lack of evidence about how best to teach someone to be a leader. It is unclear if either of these courses have had a long-term impact on students. Evaluating additional outcomes is needed. For example, it would be useful to survey the entire pharmacy class and see if students who took the course were more involved in leadership roles or professional organizations than students who did not enroll in the course. Or perhaps surveying employers of these graduates to assess whether the employer thought the student possessed leadership skills or traits at a higher level than what would be expected for an entry-level pharmacist.

Leadership courses for pharmacy students have approached leadership development in a very appropriate manner using a variety of instructional activities and tools. What we don’t seem to do well is critically evaluate and assess whether these courses actually produce the desired results.  Leadership education would be well served to apply the same rigorous standards we apply to other disciplines by examining long-term outcomes.

Leadership will continue to be a desired character trait in pharmacy and healthcare.  All pharmacists should possess fundamental leadership skills regardless of whether they hold a formal leadership position because all pharmacists influence people.  Pharmacy schools would be prudent to continue to encourage faculty to develop innovative programs and courses that work to mentor and develop future leaders and equip all graduates with the skills they need to lead at all levels in an organization. Leadership courses and programs should continue to be created using the principles of instructional design but must employ more rigorous evaluations if we want to critically assess whether they are effective.

1. White SJ. Leadership: successful alchemy. Am J Health Syst Pharm 2006; 63:1497-1503.
2. Grabenstein, JD. 2011 Rho Chi Lecture: Mortars & Pestles, Maps & Compasses, Vaccines & Syringes. Am J Pharm Educ 2011: 75: Article 79.
3. Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Accreditation standards and guidelines for the professional program in pharmacy leading to the doctor of pharmacy degree [Internet]. Chicago: Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education; 2011.  97 p.  [cited 2012 Oct 8]
4. Boyle, CJ, Beardsley, RS, Hayes, M.  Effective leadership and advocacy: amplifying professional citizenship. Am J Pharm Educ 2004;68:Article 63.
5. Sorensen, TD, Traynor, AP, Janke, KK.  A pharmacy course on leadership and leading change.  Am J Pharm Educ 2009;73:Article 23.

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