The authority/accountability balance

Evaluating your career trajectory


I have had the pleasure of working on the Society of Hospital Medicine’s signature Leadership Academies since 2010, and I enjoy working with hospital medicine leaders from around the country every year. I started as a hospital medicine leader in 2000 and served during the unprecedented growth of the field when it was “the most rapidly growing specialty in the history of medicine.”

Dr. Thomas McIlraith, immediate past chairman of the hospital medicine department at Mercy Medical Group, Sacramento, Calif.

Dr. Thomas McIlraith

Most businesses dream of having a year of double-digit growth; my department grew an average of 15% annually for more than 10 years. These unique experiences have taught me many lessons and afforded me the opportunity to watch many stars of hospital medicine rise, as well as to learn from several less-scrupulous leaders about the darker side of hospital politics.

One of the lessons I learned the hard way about hospital politics is striking the “Authority/Accountability balance” in your career. I shared this perspective at the SHM annual conference in 2018, at speaking engagements on the West Coast, and with my leadership group at the academies. I am sharing it with you because the feedback I have received has been very positive.

The Authority/Accountability balance is a tool for evaluating your current career trajectory and measuring if it is set up for success or failure. The essence is that your Authority and Accountability need to be balanced for you to be successful in your career, regardless of your station. Everybody from the hospitalist fresh out of residency to the CEO needs to have Authority and Accountability in balance to be successful. And as you use the tool to measure your own potential for success or failure, learn to apply it to those who report to you.

I believe the rising tide lifts all boats and the success of your subordinates, through mentoring and support, will add to your success. There is another, more cynical view of subordinates that can be identified using the Authority/Accountability balance, which I will address.


In this construct, “Authority” has a much broader meaning than just the ability to tell people what to do. The ability to tell people what to do is important but not sufficient for success in hospital politics.

Financial resources are essential for a successful Authority/Accountability balance – not only the hardware such as computers, telephones, pagers, and so on, but also clerical support, technical support, and analytic support so that you are getting high-quality data on the performance of the members of your hospital medicine group (HMG). These “soft” resources (clerical, technical, and analytical) are often overlooked as needs that HMG leaders must advocate for; I speak with many HMG leaders who remain under-resourced with “soft” assets. However, being appropriately resourced in these areas can be transformational for a group. Hospitalists don’t like doing clerical work, and if you don’t like a menial job assigned to you, you probably won’t do it very well. Having an unlicensed person dedicated to these clerical activities not only will cost less, but will ensure the job is done better.

Reporting structure is critically important, often overlooked, and historically misaligned in HMGs. When hospital medicine was starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, rapidly growing hospitalist groups were typically led by young, early-career physicians who had chosen hospital medicine as a career. The problem was that they often lacked the seniority and connections at the executive level to advocate for their HMG. All too often the hospitalist group was tucked in under another department or division which, in turn, reported HMG updates and issues to the board of directors and the CEO.

A common reporting structure in the early days was that a senior member of the medical staff, or group, had once worked in the hospital and therefore “understood” the issues and challenges that the hospitalists were facing. It was up to this physician with seniority and connections to advocate for the hospitalists as they saw fit. The problem was that the hospital landscape was, and is, constantly evolving in innumerable ways. These “once removed” reporting structures for HMGs failed to get the required information on the rapidly changing, and evolving, hospitalist landscape to the desks of executives who had the financial and structural control to address the challenges that the hospitalists in the trenches were facing.

Numerous HMGs failed in the early days of hospital medicine because of this type of misaligned reporting structure. This is a lesson that should not be forgotten: Make sure your HMG leader has a seat at the table where executive decisions are made, including but not limited to the board of directors. To be in balance, you have to be “in the room where it happens.”


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