What Makes an Occupational Therapist a Great Leader?

Research & Resources

Occupational therapists are usually drawn to the profession by a desire to help people and improve the daily lives of others. Compassion, kindness and patience are necessary skills of an OT.

While as an occupational therapist you may think that leadership isn’t for you, the very reasons that drew you to the profession are also the same ones that could position you to be an effective leader.

Characteristics of Good Leaders

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the following are some of the top characteristics of an effective leader along with how these characteristics should be used to grow your leadership skills as an occupational therapist.

  • Integrity. Occupational therapists with integrity follow moral and ethical principles in all aspects of their career. Integrity in the workplace means holding yourself to the highest level of honesty, respect, and loyalty and taking responsibility for your actions. By acting with integrity, you can help patients feel an increased sense of satisfaction, which may improve their performance and overall quality of life. You should also use research to improve clinical decision-making skills in order to support a patient-centered practice. Gaining the ability to locate and critically evaluate evidence-based practice not only allows you to expand your knowledge base, but it also directly correlates with providing high quality services to patients and their families.
  • Delegation and collaboration. Occupational therapists delegate effectively by assigning responsibility, duties and authority to others. As OTs, we collaborate with other allied health professionals to successfully manage our role by being dependable, honest and reliable in the workplace. Allowing others to see these qualities, in addition to being fair and open-minded, fosters effective professional relationships. By maintaining focus and utilizing helpful resources when needed, you hold yourself accountable to enhance your personal and professional self.
  • Communication. Effective communication is necessary to be successful as an occupational therapist. A degree of flexibility, being open-minded, employing active listening and speaking with confidence are crucial in order to be successful. Follow standards of practice, consider the profession’s code of ethics and obtain supplementary certifications to keep current as a practitioner, educator, researcher and a fieldwork supervisor.
  • Self-Awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to understand and have conscious knowledge of your own character, habits, personality traits and how these impact your interactions with others. Some characteristics include being observant, empathetic, responsive and adaptive. It is a cognitive behavior process. Cognition, behavior management and mental health skills are fundamental concepts in the profession. In leadership, it is important to demonstrate strong self-awareness and recognize how to empower your team’s own self-awareness. This will result in a more productive and positive work environment.
  • Gratitude. Practicing gratitude has many mental and health benefits, especially in our profession. Studies show that expressing gratitude can improve your sleep, mood and even immunity. For your patients, it can decrease depression, anxiety and the challenges of chronic pain. Thanking your patients, clients and families for trusting you with their care and for their hard work helps to build strong bonds. We see the effects of this in the achievement of goals and better outcomes. This holds true in leadership. When a leader shows genuine gratitude toward their team for a job well done, it helps build resilience and increases their willingness to help.
  • Learning agility. Learning agility is the ability to learn new things quickly in an unpredictable environment while being flexible to these changes. Effective and efficient leadership relies on your ability to quickly pivot and adapt to an ever-changing environment. Occupational therapists are skilled at navigating this unpredictability, whether it be technology or regulatory changes. At Encompass Health, we have coined this “change agility.” It describes how we as therapists demonstrate the ability to adapt, change and be flexible in our day-to-day operations.
  • Influence. As occupational therapists, we strive to improve our patients’ quality of life by providing quality care. Our skill set enables us to help those around us develop healthy habits and behaviors. With a focus on holistic care, you have the capacity to influence your patients, family members and caregivers, coworkers and the community.
  • Empathy. In a profession that is geared toward helping people identify and meet their own goals, occupational therapists display an elevated level of empathy. It helps us ask important questions, understand the barriers and discern a person’s strengths. This quality also applies to leading others. Leading with empathy creates an environment that promotes well-being and cooperation.
  • Courage. It takes courage to be a leader and an occupational therapist. We help others confront uncertainty on a regular basis. OTs help others learn to do activities in a new way, often when it feels like there is no way.
  • Respect. Occupational therapy has become an area known for its person-centered and strengths-based approach. We recognize the value of individual differences. This is an important quality in a leader as well. Leaders find a way to utilize each person’s strengths within a team.

Tips on Advancing Your Career

An occupational therapist’s journey could begin as a staff occupational therapist and transition to a senior therapist, OT manager, therapy manager and perhaps eventually to a director of therapy operations.

In this scenario, you would be given the opportunity to evolve as a leader in various ways. Navigating through those different seasons in your career demonstrates how vital it is to understand the significance and impact of applying key leadership skills in an occupational therapy practice.

There are several concepts to focus on to sharpen your leadership skills and advance your OT career. Some of them include:

Employee Engagement

Displaying generosity as a leader is an essential skill to apply in your daily practice. Surprising staff members with random gifts of appreciation or offering praise for a job well done shows occupational therapists that they are appreciated and valuable, which leads them to be more engaged in their daily work.

Some ways to engage employees include:

  • Planning and coordinating departmental activities. For example, volunteering to coordinate a holiday luncheon creates a fun work environment and supports the importance of team comradery.
  • During times of staffing shortages, volunteer to work extra weekend shifts. This creates a manageable daily workflow for your coworkers and employees, which facilitates teamwork.
  • Delegating tasks is an effective way to empower staff. It is rewarding to give staff the opportunity to explore their talents and strengths and build confidence in areas where they can grow.

For an occupational therapist to enhance leadership skills and engage employees, it is important to be generous and consider your staff’s needs. It is also important to set a positive example by assisting with departmental processes and empowering staff to see how they can grow and be successful in future roles.


A leader must decide when it’s important to speak up in different circumstances and advocate for themselves and others.

You could speak up about attending a certain type of course or advocate for patients to receive other appropriate services post-discharge.

Advocating for yourself and others helps build trusting relationships with employees. It also helps them see the advantages of being a team player and achieving their professional goals.


Serving as a mentor to your staff allows you as a leader to share your knowledge and skills to help them enhance their performance. Providing ongoing feedback to employees fosters confidence with evidence-based and client-centered treatment planning and execution.

Professional Development

Throughout different seasons of your career, several professional development opportunities are available to help in your advancement.

Teaching in-services in hospitals, university settings and conferences can enhance your knowledge, impart information to other clinicians and increase your confidence in communicating to staff and various audiences effectively.

Obtaining a post-professional degree is a great avenue to embark upon to promote advancement. Pursuing a doctor of occupational therapy degree advances your knowledge and skills in evidence-based practice and prepares you for growth and opportunities in leadership, education and research.

Attending leadership continuing education courses also can make an enormous impact in your OT profession. Currently, AOTA has a new program, AOTA LEAD 360, designed to facilitate leadership growth.

What Are Leadership Opportunities in the Inpatient Rehabilitation Setting?

There are several opportunities for OT leaders in the inpatient rehabilitation setting. There are senior OTs, OT team leaders, therapy managers and therapy directors.

Each of these OTs use leadership characteristics differently. For instance, senior OTs, OT team leaders and therapy managers can help with staff education by keeping up to date with evidenced-based practice (integrity) and educating staff on evidenced-based treatment techniques.

All of these roles are also responsible for mentoring staff therapists, so knowing your scope of practice (self-awareness) becomes important for educating your staff on various treatment methods, advocating for the OT’s role in the inpatient rehabilitation setting and encouraging staff to embrace their roles (influence).

As leaders in this setting, you can also play a role in achieving Disease-Specific Care Certifications from The Joint Commission for your hospitals. The Joint Commission certification means that your rehabilitation hospital has met the criteria of targeted metrics and clinical performance and compliance standards. OT leaders help to lead some of these programs at their hospitals, gathering staff for weekly meetings, defining standards, problem-solving, setting goals and communicating between disciplines to ensure quality care. They may delegate various tasks of the program to committee members, provide disease-specific education and continuously strive for excellence.

Whether in an inpatient rehabilitation hospital or another care setting, occupational therapists have a unique skill set that could also make them effective leaders. Occupational therapy professionals need to continue to acknowledge that unique perspective we bring to leadership roles and continue to develop these characteristics to grow as leaders in the industry.

This post was compiled by Encompass Health occupational therapy leaders Lindsay Wedan, Keinee Austin, Melissa Emge-Beverly, Stephanie Lucarelli-Engel and Jared Zimmerman


American Occupational Therapy Association. (2023). AOTA Lead 360. https://www.aota.org/career/lead-360

AOTA. (2021). Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Aota.org. http://www.aota.org/Practice/Children-Youth/Mental%20Health/School-Mental-Health.aspx

Gallo, A. (2021, November 24). Giving Thanks at Work: An HBR Guide. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/11/giving-thanks-at-work-an-hbr-guide

Harris, L. (2020, March 10). Council Post: Self-Awareness Is Key To Leadership Excellence. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/03/10/self-awareness-is-key-to-leadership-excellence/?sh=74aef8c1384a

Indeed Editorial Team. (2021, March 10). The Importance of Self Awareness in Leadership. Indeed Career Guide. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/self-awareness-in-leadership

Logan, A. (2022, December 6). Can expressing gratitude improve health? Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/can-expressing-gratitude-improve-health

The 10 characteristics of a good leader. CCL. (2023, June 26). https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/characteristics-good-leader/

The content of this site is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions or treatments.