Looking at leadership

Burnout is increasing among the Australian pharmacy profession and strong leadership is essential to maintaining a healthy workforce, argue these pharmacist researchers

By Therése Kairuz, Richard Jane, Jack Papworth and Andrew Walker

Understanding leadership

Leadership may be described as a style, trait, ability or skill yet leadership can include all of these – and then some! Whatever the description, leadership is real; people know when they experience good leadership and they can discern when leadership is poor.

Leadership has many interpretations. To some people, it involves monitoring things closely, delegating tasks, being proficient at managing time and managing people. To others, leadership means being innovative and willing to take risks while also being prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of those risks.

And sometimes leadership simply means being the boss.

Leadership is about people and the essence of leadership is about inspiring people to be self-motivated.  Leadership is affected by our impression on others and how other impress upon us, and an essential component is self-leadership.

‘Me’ and ‘I’ are of paramount importance to each and every person and the human instinct to promote survival of ‘me’ is unbelievably strong, driving acts of heroism, survival and sheer resilience. The first step in leadership is self-leadership – being true to self and being prepared to uphold one’s values; it is the key pillar that enables leadership of others.

Integrated with self-preservation is respect, for oneself and for others. Respectful leaders are respected leaders.  

The pharmacy profession highlighted the importance of self-leadership by incorporating it into the 2016 National Competency Standards Framework for Pharmacists.1 Competency Standards describe the skills, attitudes, values and beliefs needed to “consistently perform a specific task of function to the desired standard”, enabling effective practice.1

Published in 1994 as Competency Standards for Entry Level Pharmacists and revised in 2010 as the National Competency Framework for Pharmacists, the most recent version (2016) requires pharmacists to “show leadership”. In the 2016 version, Leadership and Management reflected the most changes in competency domains and reflects the need for, and importance of, leadership and management (Fig 1).

Leadership and management are not the same, but they are inter-related. A good leader should demonstrate good management skills, although a good manager may not necessarily be a good leader. However, leadership can be learnt.

Learning the art and skills of leadership requires a different teaching approach to learning than the approaches to gain knowledge about evidence-based medicines, for example, and can be challenging for those responsible for educating future pharmacists.

Before one can “[influence] the behavior of others towards” one needs to  know one’s own strengths and weaknesses, understand and display self-awareness, and be able to self-regulate and self-motivate.1

Consideration of these important behaviours associated with leadership gave rise to the broad question: How is leadership, including clinical leadership, developed within the profession of pharmacy?

Searching the literature about pharmacy leadership

To answer this question, a review of literature was conducted in 2019 between March and April, using MEDLINE and EMBASE databases with ‘clinical leadership’, ‘pharm*’, ‘develop*’ and ‘pharm*+lead*’ as search terms. The process followed a systematised approach and focussed on articles published from 2010. Results were uploaded to ‘Covidence’, a literature screening application with built-in features that enables a team to screen and rate articles.

Titles of the search results (n=178) were screened and 93 were rejected as not relevant (Fig 2). The remaining abstracts (n=85) were reviewed and 47 were excluded due to: insufficient information about leadership development, including education/training; lack of robust discussion and the importance of leadership; and/or lack of evidence of clinical leadership that improved patient outcomes.

Full text articles (n=38) were reviewed for relevance and quality assessment was conducted using the built-in feature in Covidence. Nineteen articles were excluded as they did not include educational aspects about leadership development, and the remaining articles were critically reviewed.

Pharmacy leadership: findings from literature

The majority of studies about leadership in pharmacy originated in America (n=15) followed by Canada (n=2), Turkey (n=1), and the Netherlands (n=1) (Fig 3); there were no studies from Australia. Most articles (n=16) had been published from 2013 to 2020, with three published in 2021.

Just under half (47%; n=9) of the articles related to pharmacy students or interns/residents and leadership education/development,2-10 four articles related to leadership in the profession11-14  and three reported on clinical leadership.15-17 Two articles focussed on emotional intelligence, including amongst students2;18 and one concentrated on self-leadership.19 This review was limited to research databases and did not include ‘grey’ literature.

Discussing leadership development in contemporary practice

That there were no studies about pharmacy leadership arising from Australia was surprising, as the profession is proactive in conducting clinical trials and reporting clinical findings. It was anticipated that leadership development among pharmacy students/interns (residents) would dominate the literature, as it is expected that academics (faculty) will publish their work.

Examples from studies involving student development included descriptions of development in relation to emotional intelligence2 and the application of the seven action logics to gain control of one’s own behaviour.3 One study extended to the use of photovoice methodology in which a camera placed in participants’ hands is used to help them in the process of documenting, reflecting, and communicating issues during activities.7

Recently, Kairuz et al. described a learning experience that was launched from Newcastle in Australia in which an experiential learning approach was used to provide opportunities for pharmacy and medical students from different countries to experience leadership development, including ‘norming and storming’ within a team environment, during the 2020 pandemic.20

In our review we identified only one study that focused on emotional intelligence. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is more important than intelligence quotient (IQ),21 and learning how to handle anger, manage conflicts, develop empathy, and control impulses are essential skills that can be learnt.

In addition to social skills associated with emotional intelligence, empathy is advantageous in leadership. However, it must be acknowledged that not all people in positions of authority are empathic.

In his book Taming Toxic People, Australian author David Gillespie aptly describes people who are intent on reaching career goals with little or no consideration for those who may inadvertently stand between them and their aspirations.22 This book is recommended for anyone who aspires to creating a healthy workplace environment and is especially relevant for those who are responsible for the wellbeing of other employees. 

It was expected that articles which describe clinical leadership would be identified in this review. Clinical pharmacy, including the functions of accredited pharmacists in performing medication reviews, provides rewarding career pathways for many pharmacists including in Australia.

Australian pharmacists are also known for stepping up and providing services and medicines during challenging times including natural disasters such as bush fires, droughts, floods and the pandemic,23 despite the actions placing their health, at risk.24  

Not surprisingly, stress levels have increased since the emergence of the pandemic in 2020 and while pharmacists may recognise signs and symptoms of mental ill health in patients, it is easy to overlook the signs in oneself.25

Burnout, defined as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, is now included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) although it has not (yet) been described as a medical condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V).

Symptoms of burnout include energy depletion, mental ‘distancing’ from one’s job or negativism, and reduced professional efficacy.26

Burnout is increasing among the Australian pharmacy profession27 and strong leadership will be essential to maintain a healthy workforce and sustain the delivery of medicines to people in Australia.

Pharmacy leadership will also have to guide early career pharmacists, as described by Lambert,28 and address some of the frustrations of pharmacy students as outlined by Paola.29 It is timely to take stock of the most valuable asset of any organisation – its people.

In conclusion, our review illustrates that there a gap in the literature regarding pharmacy leadership studies emerging from Australia. 

Therése Kairuz is Associate Professor, School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy, University of Newcastle. Richard Jane, Jack Papworth, Andrew Walker are pharmacy students for the BPharm(Hons) at the University of Newcastle.

Readers can contact the corresponding author at Therese.Kairuz@newcastle.edu.au for more information.


The authors thank Luke Kelly (BPharm, FPSA) and business leader Tracy Nickloes (MBA) for their guidance.


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