Leadership and professional skills courses

Interview with Norman Sartorius

Main theme: Leadership


Young psychiatrists rarely receive adequate training in leadership and professional skills which would make it easier for them to manage their tasks in the different professional roles of a psychiatrist. The courses described below help to fill that gap.

When did these leadership courses start and why did you take the initiative to start them?

The courses started modestly, in the 1990’s because I had many opportunities to see that young psychiatrists frequently faced difficulties because they were lacking professional and leadership skills. Gradually the courses became more popular and developed into their present shape. The courses last 3 days with an intensive program of 10-12 hours a day. We found that although strenuous, an intensive work schedule creates a better atmosphere and facilitates networking and building of friendships which is also an important goal of the courses.

The courses have taken place all over the world from China to Mexico and Indonesia each bringing together participants from neighbouring countries. We also have annual courses in Japan (various towns) , India (Bangalore) and Germany (Berlin). Since its inception we have given more than 130 courses with a total of some 2500 participants.

We usually receive 4-6 applications for each of the 16 seats. Each applicant sends a cv and a detailed letter of motivation. Subsequently these are assessed by a local expert, the course co-leader and myself, and then a final decision is made taking also into consideration geographical and gender distribution.

What is the objective of these courses?

I had myself the experience that no one taught me very simple things related to my daily work. Professional skills that would have eased my work and development and saved me a lot of trouble and time were simply not taught. Remembering this I have created a model for the course that is focused on needs emerging on daily work - making participants acquire relevant professional skills – for example how to present oneself, how to present a proposal or a paper, how to say no when faced with extra workload, how to negotiate or how to choose the first research topic. In most courses I have also had the invaluable support from one or two very experienced colleagues (Graham Thornicroft, Ida Hagemann, David Goldberg, Mohan Isaac, Andreas Heinz to mention a few).

Participants are typically kept very active, asked to present papers, develop proposals (and learn how to present them) take part in role plays of typical work tasks, learn how to evaluate, and present their evaluations of work in a constructive manner. They are given practical advice about the selection of research topics, about publication. They learn how to speak to public health authorities, how to manage a small team and how to manage their time.

Norman Sartorius, Professor in psychiatry, former director of the World Health Organization's Division of Mental Health.
Norman Sartorius, Professor in psychiatry, former director of the World Health Organization's Division of Mental Health.

How are the courses financed?

We have limited resources. We have over time received some funding from pharma (without ever accepting to promote the donor or their products), and some university funds, but a lot is self-financed by participants. Teachers receive no honorarium, just have their expenses covered and the participants often pay their own travel expenses and accommodation.

Do you have information about the impact of these courses?

We carry out immediate evaluation after the course, but I receive later significant feedback from former participants how the course had changed their career and how useful they have found the exercises. Many recommend to colleagues and friends to apply for the course which I consider to be a very positive evaluation. Of course, there is a bias in these assessments as those participating are not a random sample of young psychiatrists but a selected group which volunteered to actively participate in a strenuous course – a group that would have probably managed well irrespective of the course but might do better because of it. Right now, a group of former participants is planning a survey of short and long-term gains from courses and of their impact on their career-patterns.

Do you see advantages of having psychiatrists in leadership positions?

I do. We undergo minimum 12 years of training after leaving high school, so we gain a lot of experience and have our performance observed for years in contrast to others who may be given such positions. I believe that substantial professional experience is a clear prerequisite for assuming leadership positions in our field. It would be wrong to underestimate professional competence and experience in selecting leaders. □