Therapists as Leaders

group of penguins

Translating clinical skills to corporate success

By Fred Gilbert, PT, DPT

Today’s leadership landscape is rapidly transforming. Gone are the days when
“hard skills” such as work experience and financial mastery are the
determining factor for entry into C-Suite positions. The torch is now being
passed to leaders armed with “human” skills — attributes that pivot around
people management.

Consider these four key skill sets described in the Harvard Business Review’s
2017 article “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart”1:

1. Deciding with Speed & Conviction

They’re decisive, realizing they can’t wait for perfect information and that a
wrong decision is often better than no decision.

2. Engaging for Impact

They engage for impact, working to understand the priorities of stakeholders
and then aligning them around a goal of value creation.

3. Adapting Proactively

They adapt proactively, keeping an eye on the long term and treating mistakes
as learning opportunities.

4. Delivering Reliably

They deliver results in a reliable fashion, steadily following through on

Sounds familiar, yes? Let’s break those same qualities down inside the
day-to-day operations of a physical therapy clinic:

1. Deciding with Speed & Conviction

You have 30 minutes to do a full evaluation. Within that time, you need to
create a therapeutic alliance, map out the journey ahead, and make a
meaningful impact on their primary goal today. Within minutes, you evaluate
all the data points and choose the most important place to start.

2. Engaging for Impact

You find the goal within the goals. You know that climbing stairs pain-free is
more than it seems — you tie that goal to future freedom and independence — to
travel and family and thriving. You see the end goal, not just the first step
on the journey.

3. Adapting Proactively

You’re thrown a curveball — your patient took a step back after the last
session. You assess the situation, own the places you made mistakes, and
create a new plan on the spot to get everything back on track. You assess the
misstep and prepare the patient for future setbacks and how to manage them

4. Delivering Reliably

On day one, you develop a plan of care for your patient. You highlight key
milestones along the way and consistently keep on target. Your patient knows
the journey ahead, the work required, and the timeframe with which to expect
to reach their goals.


Therapists, once confined to traditional clinic settings, are on the cusp of
an expansive horizon. From innovations like mobile clinics, telehealth, and
on-site health services, to harnessing opportunities in the various digital
platforms emerging every day — options abound. Doors swing open to realms
outside conventional therapy — consultancy roles, managing hospital systems,
or the world of tech startups.

But where to begin? How do you set yourself on the path to the C-Suite and
begin your own leadership metamorphosis?

Seek Ikigai2

The Japanese concept means your “reason for being.” It is the intersection of
what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be
paid for. Define the world you want — if there are missing pieces to the
Ikigai puzzle, reflect and seek answers. Let your values and interests guide
you — the skills we have apply to every sector and every industry. Let Ikigai
guide the way.

Cultivate Curiosity

Seek to understand the roles and the growth you want. Establish mentors who
have taken the path already. Network within the sectors and positions you
want. Good questions result in good answers. Let curiosity drive you forward.
Absorb information from a variety of sources – mentorship meetings, podcasts,
books, and articles. Seek to understand the world you desire to join.

Reframe Your Identity

Prepare for an identity crisis. An inner conflict, marked by guilt,
self-doubt, and the specter of imposter syndrome, is par for the course. The
metamorphosis from a clinician to a CEO is akin to shedding an old identity.
Anticipate questions — “But you trained for this career!” or the poignant “Why
are you leaving us?” from patients and coworkers alike.

In these moments of introspection, an anchor is essential. Extend compassion
to yourself. Realize that evolution, especially self-perception, is a gradual
process. Rooting oneself in personal values provides the stability to weather
these inner tempests.

Embrace the Squiggle

Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis, in their book The Squiggly Career tell us that
it’s time to ditch the idea of the career ladder. There is no single upward
trajectory. Successful careers follow varied, squiggly paths. Take the
opportunities in front of you that allow you to build forward momentum towards
the position you want. Every experience and position you take adds to your
skill set and builds your network. Some steps will feel like leaps ahead;
while others will feel like falling behind. Embrace the squiggle all the way
to the top.


In many ways, you have already begun your leadership metamorphosis. The
demands of the physical therapy clinic began your transformation years ago.
The new world of work demands the skill sets we have – we need to take the
first step. Pause for a moment after finishing this article and consider:

  • What is my Ikigai? What values define you and carry you forward?
  • How are you intentionally developing the leadership skills required in
    today’s working world?
  • How do you cultivate curiosity and absorb new information? How do you
    receive the feedback required for growth?
  • What internal dialogue makes you hesitate in starting this journey?
  • What is the first step you will take today?

Leadership metamorphosis isn’t a static construct, but an ever-evolving
tapestry woven by the demands of today’s unpredictable world. So, whether
you’re a therapist with CEO aspirations or someone striving to lead in their
niche, remember the world is indeed changing – and we are positioned to usher
the world forward. 

action item


1Lytkina BE. 4 things that set successful CEOS apart. Harvard
Business Review. Published July 18, 2017. Accessed November 6, 2023.

2García H, Miralles F, Cleary H. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to
a Long and Happy Life. Hutchinson; 2017.

3Tupper H, Ellis S. The Squiggly Career: Ditch the Ladder,
Discover Opportunity, and Design Your Career. Portfolio UK; 2020.

Fred Gilbert, PT, DPT

Fred Gilbert, PT, DPT,
is an APTA Private practice member and Chief People Officer for MovementX.
He can be reached at fred@movement-x.com and @movementxinc.