8 Tips for Leadership in Periods of Crisis

Contributing Authors: Robert Porter and Kathy Gibala

We continue to be humbled by those of you who are fearlessly working at the front lines of this crisis, putting your own health at risk to respond to the call to human service.  And we have been so impressed by the resilience, resourcefulness, and courage demonstrated by the healthcare leaders with whom we have the privilege to work in this challenging moment.

While there are no simple formulas for leading in periods of crisis, here are a few tips we have gathered from those leaders which you may find helpful. In compiling the list, we have played off of the number “8” which is a bit of a gimmick but might be helpful to keep these suggestions top of mind:

1. Medit-8

One of the most important things for leaders, and those they lead, in periods of prolonged stress is to find simple ways to shore up their resilience. With the critical issues you are confronting, it is important for you to be at your best. Taking time for self-care is not selfish, but a critical ethical and business imperative.There is no one practice that works for everyone.  For some, meditation is effective, for others, deep breathing, exercise, prayer, a nap, or talking with a friend or confidant outside the workplace. The key is to recognize your need to shore up your personal capacity for this marathon. Check in with yourself throughout the day to monitor your energy level, your mood, and how you may be showing up with others. Be mindful of what triggers you or when you are depleted and remain sensitive to this same need among those you lead. Draw on approaches you have used in the past to move through times of stress or experiment with new methods until you find something that works for you.

2. Communic-8

Nothing provokes fear and anxiety more than prolonged uncertainty.    Our brains process it as a continuous threat.  As humans, we abhor a vacuum and feel compelled to fill it with our speculation which most often seems to skew toward the worst-case scenario.But what can you do when you cannot know with certainty how things are going to play out?  First, find efficient ways to share what you do know when you know it to keep people as well informed as possible.  Be careful to distinguish between what you know, what you think, and what you hope. Reinforce what is not changing, helping people to focus and reconnect to your shared purpose, mission, and values.  Second, express empathy and appreciation for what your team is going through, recognizing the significant changes and sacrifices we may be asking them to make. And most importantly, communicate from a posture of “realistic optimism,” mindful of the reality, authentically vulnerable, but with courage and genuine confidence in the organization’s collective ability to meet the challenge. Provide clarity on the pathway ahead.

The antidote for uncertainty is trust – in the leaders, the process through which decisions will be made, and the values that will guide those decisions.  When it is not possible to know “what” is going to happen, what anchors people is trust in “how” things are going to be done.

3. Contempl-8 

In moments of crisis, when things are moving rapidly, and information is at once overwhelming, fragmented, and inconsistent; it is easy to lose balance and make frantic, ill-advised decisions. As hard as it is, it is critical that leaders carve out moments of “heads up” time so they can step back, assimilate information, recalibrate internal responses, and make considered decisions.The legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, would tell his players “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” In moments like this when critical decisions need to be made in compressed time frames with incomplete information, it is important to be urgent, not frantic, and find the space in time and place that enables you to do so.

4. Deleg-8

While delegation is always a critical competency of leadership, it is especially important, and tricky, in situations like the current crisis. When things are changing rapidly, the pace of hierarchical decision making is likely to be too slow. Senior leaders may need to let go of direct control and empower people to act with the responsiveness the situation demands. Careful delegation requires providing individuals with the right blend of direction and support they need to equip them to act in alignment with the organization’s objectives.This can be especially tricky when you are mobilizing people to take on new and unfamiliar roles. Providing up-front direction, supportive tools, and experienced resources that can be quickly accessed when unfamiliar situations arise are essential steps to assure people are equipped to work effectively and safely.

5. Facilit-8

One of the key roles of leaders in moments of crisis is removing barriers, providing real-time support, and accelerating procedures to provide what is needed when and where it is needed. Leaders help create the conditions necessary for people to perform at their best. As you ask your staff to embrace the challenge, they should, in turn, be able to look to you to put them in the best possible position to do so.

6. Collabor-8 to Innov-8

If this crisis has taught us one thing it’s that we are all interconnected. We have certainly seen that in our collective vulnerability as an infection that began in one small part of the globe has now becoming a worldwide crisis.  But there is a positive side of that interconnectedness as well. By weaving together the talents and skills of many around a common goal, we can accomplish, and are accomplishing, great things, far more than any one of us could do on our own.This is a time that calls for leveraging the gifts of everyone in the collaborative pursuit of innovative solutions to this crisis.  Whether it be clinicians and technicians building a platform for a rapid conversion to telehealth or working from home, public health officials and community organizations partnering with hospitals to coordinate campaigns around education and prevention, manufacturing firms partnering with their counterparts in other industries to convert their capacity from cars to ventilators – this is a moment to come together in creative ways in the search for impactful solutions.  Leaders recognize the power in working together and reach out to new partners in new ways big and small. They are wide open to challenging conventional thinking to find what works.

We are being propelled into a brave, new world.  Born of necessity, it is certain to be a time of great creativity.  Take advantage of this moment to capture and carry forward new insights and opportunities that can endure long after this crisis has passed.

7. Associ-8

For many, one of the most challenging aspects of this crisis is the isolation and disruption of relationships. Leaders are finding creative ways to address this challenge, leveraging technology to replace physical connection with virtual connection. Studies have shown that one of the most important predictors of positive employee engagement scores is having a “best friend at work.” It is important to remember how important those associations are and find ways to support them even in a world of social distancing.

8. Appreci-8

While it is true that there is intrinsic reward in serving others, it is also true that it feels good when one’s efforts are noticed and appreciated. In this time when people are doing truly heroic things, one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is take time for small, genuine, unexpected expressions of gratitude.

Consider how you might approach this crisis from that mindset of gratitude and abundance.  Look for bright spots. Highlight progress. Focus on the assets you have and build together as much or more than your deficits. Leaders are possibility thinkers, who genuinely portray confidence that the answer lies within us, and who build confidence by highlighting past challenges that have been met and overcome.

You likely have other strategies to add to the list. As you reflect on your own experience in facing with and moving through personal and professional crises, you are likely to rediscover your own useful “tool kit.”  You may also wish to engage your team in dialogue about how they are feeling, what they are doing, and what support they need to be at their best in this demanding moment. When we have been part of this kind of dialogue, we have been overwhelmed by the wellspring of wisdom and strength that resides in people.

We, at MEDI Leadership, are anxious to help our colleagues in healthcare in any way you might find useful as you fight this battle at the front lines. Please reach to us if we can serve you as a thought partner or support system. Words cannot express our gratitude for all you are doing.

Robert Porter
About the author

Robert (Bob) Porter is an accomplished organizational leader with over 30 years’ experience in health system leadership.
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