Individuals who take on leadership positions in academic health science centers help facilitate the mission of those institutions. However, they are often chosen on the basis of success in the core activities in research, education and patient care rather than on the basis of demonstrated leadership and management skills. Indeed, most academic leaders in the past have "learned on the job." This commentary provides practical advice on how to be an effective leader on the basis of the author's experiences as a Division Head and Chief of Medicine. It covers six themes (vision, managerial style, knowledge, people skills, organizational orientation and personal development) and offers 21 specific suggestions, one for each year of the author's leadership. It is hoped that this experience-derived advice will help future leaders in academic medicine.