How to Find Leadership Roles as a Pharmacy Student

A pharmacist developing leadership skills in a pharmacy setting.

Leadership is the ability of an individual to influence and guide an organization of like-minded members. It is critical to any profession’s long-term success, and pharmacy is no exception. With so many job applications asking about your leadership experience, it is clear that possessing these skills can help advance your career, making you more versatile and increasing your opportunities.

But what does pharmacy leadership look like in practice, and how do you acquire leadership skills and experience as a pharmacy student

Why is leadership important in pharmacy?

If you have gotten through high school or college, you have likely been told how valuable a leadership position is, not just for your resume but for your personal development. Pharmacy school is no different. Pharmacy practice is a high-stakes environment where errors (think wrong prescriptions, overdoses, etc.) can have dire consequences, including fatalities. 

That’s why schools of pharmacy and professional organizations must emphasize developing leaders who have strong ethics and morals, are team players and are diligent in executing their job functions while leading others to do the same. 

According to the journal article, A new leadership role for pharmacists: a prescription for change, “Pharmacists can play an important role as leaders to reduce patient safety risks, optimize the safe function of medication management systems, and align pharmacy services with national initiatives that measure and reward quality performance.”

Leaders who are passionate about pharmacy practice, are mission-driven, and embody integrity can change any organizational culture. Good pharmacy leadership can make a difference in shifting perceptions and practice models of the profession so that pharmacists can practice at the peak of their training. Such leaders can create reform by fostering organizations that prioritize patients and improve patient outcomes. 

How do pharmacists show leadership?

Pharmacy leadership is action, not position. You do not necessarily need to have the word “manager” in your title to be a leader. As John Maxwell so aptly put, “The true measure of leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.” Therefore, anyone can be a leader if they can influence others toward a common goal.

Moreover, you don’t have to look far to find opportunities to show leadership. While practicing pharmacy in any setting, you will have the chance to show leadership in your daily activities. Being proactive, taking initiative, volunteering to complete a task outside the scope of your standard duties, solving a problem at work, being a mentor to a new pharmacist or student, etc., are examples of how pharmacists show leadership. 

What is the difference between a manager and a leader in the pharmacy field?

As with other professions, there is a difference between a manager and a leader, although the lines can sometimes seem blurry. Fundamentally, managers focus on processes, whereas leaders focus on people. The function of good management is to develop better operations, while the function of good leadership is to develop other leaders. 

Typically, a manager holds a leadership position and manages an operation. A leader, by contrast, doesn’t necessarily have to maintain a specific title to exert leadership. Leading other pharmacists or technicians in your place of work is leadership. Doing more than the bare minimum, making the sacrifice or “taking one for the team,” and inspiring others to be positive and productive are all manifestations of leadership in action. 

The American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy™ puts forth the following as the difference between a manager and a leader:

  • Managers administer; leaders innovate.
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers focus on systems; leaders focus on people.
  • Managers ensure that things are done right; leaders ensure that the right things are done.
  • Managers maintain; leaders develop.
  • Managers rely on control; leaders inspire trust.
  • Managers have a short-term perspective; leaders have a long-term perspective.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers have an eye on the bottom line; leaders have an eye on the horizon.

What leadership styles are important in pharmacy?

What leadership style you should employ in pharmacy depends on several factors, such as the nature of your business, work environment, and the type of staff members you employ. Below are a few popular leadership styles to consider:

  • Authoritarian: Here, you assume near-total control of the entire operation, seldom leaning on your employees for input. Works best for leaders with employees who require constant supervision or micromanaging to perform their best. 
  • Laissez-Faire: Works best for leaders who want to empower their employees with autonomy, trusting them to make crucial decisions while being content with providing direct feedback and guidance as needed.
  • Participative: This democratic leadership style welcomes the contributions of all members, although the buck stops with the group leader. Inclusive in its nature, this style creates an environment where employees feel valued and work toward a common goal.
  • Situational: A more fluid and adaptable design where the leadership style you implement is based on the current situation at hand. High-pressure situations may require an authoritarian style, whereas low-pressure conditions may warrant a laid-back or laissez-faire style. 
  • Transformational: An overarching leadership style most often implemented when an organization needs to scale exponentially or make a significant change in operations. In this scenario, a transformative leader is an inspirational figure who creates valuable and positive change in staff members, challenging and developing them into leaders in their own right.

How do you find leadership opportunities?

As an aspiring pharmacist, you should continue to engage in some of the same activities you did when applying to pharmacy school. Below are a few suggestions on finding leadership opportunities in pharmacy:

1. Get involved: Pursue membership in relevant pharmacy organizations such as the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), student chapters of the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (ASHP), and American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP), to name a few. Becoming a member of these organizations of your peers will expand your networking and leadership opportunities. 

Start early in your pharmacy education and participate in various activities. If the chance arises to run for a specific leadership role (president, vice president, etc.), or head up a project, consider this your opportunity and go for it! This is a chance for you to develop your unique leadership style.

2. Seminars: Many pharmacy schools will have professional or student organization seminars about leadership and developing leadership abilities. Attend these seminars and apply what you learn.     

3. Specialized Training: Seek to attain specialized training, eg, a postgraduate year-1 (PGY-1), PGY-2, or a fellowship in a particular pharmacy field to advance your knowledge and expertise in that specific area.

Ultimately, remember that leadership starts with a positive attitude. As you embark on your pharmacy career, do your best to navigate the challenges you face with an optimist’s outlook of the future. View every obstacle as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership by coming up with solutions. Believe in yourself and your abilities, and see yourself as a problem solver capable of influencing other problem-solvers in the field. If you can achieve that, you can be a leader in pharmacy. 


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