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Opinion: Leadership lessons during times of uncertainty

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The brain craves certainty almost as much as it craves food and water. In his book, “The Brain at Work,” author David Rock writes, “A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat response in your limbic system.”

Compound the stress of uncertainty, while leading in a pandemic, and what do you get? Leadership lessons about safety, communication, decision making and energy management. I interviewed over a half a dozen health care leaders to get a sense of what they learned about leading in a crisis.

“People can’t focus unless they feel safe; therefore a priority was making sure safety concerns were first and foremost,” said Dr. Manish Garg. Responsible for 48 resident physician trainees in Emergency Medicine at Cornell and Columbia, Dr. Garg said this pandemic has been one of the most stressful experiences in his life.

“The greatest challenge was leading in uncertainty, and since New York City was at the epicenter of the pandemic there were limited guidelines and protocols at the beginning,” he said. To improve focus, Dr. Garg made safety a priority.

At Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar, managers started a daily safety huddle followed by an email briefing distributed to everyone, to keep them informed and updated, said CEO Gary Fulbright.

Sherry Hamlin, CEO of Voyage Senior Living in Marion, Illinois, said her team created a COVID zone with a sealed wall in one of the memory care neighborhoods with a circulating air system to pull air out of the area instead of circulating in the building.

The lesson: Safety increases focus and protects the workforce and the patients they serve.

Even though leaders may feel exhausted from repeating themselves over and over, many leaders used frequent communication as a stress reduction strategy.

Jessica Hooper, director of education development at American Association of Physician Leaders, said, “Our members who reported holding open forums, town halls or stand-up meetings have fared better by allowing an open space to talk about issues as a way to manage emotions.”

At North Arkansas Regional Medical Center, Director of Employee Education Delbert McCutchen said, “The ever-changing landscape of regulations made it almost impossible to keep staff on the same page,” so he started a daily huddle with staff to discuss the issues.

The lesson: You can’t over-communicate. Communication promotes clarity and alignment.

Decision making
In a crisis, leaders must make swift decisions and place big bets without a lot of data — something that requires speed followed by course-correction as new information arises.

Vicki Plumlee, clinic group administrator for Ozarks Community Hospital, said the hospital adopted a “just-do-it” mindset. “Things were moving so fast and coming at us from so many different directions we had to just do what we could, work through the details and then course-correct as needed,” she said.

Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth, said he has learned more in the last seven months than at any time in his career.

“In a crisis we must absolutely have a bias toward speed and action. The need to learn, adapt, learn and adapt again in a continuous cycle. During our first incident command meeting, a guiding statement was, ‘This is a novel virus, we are flying blind and backwards.’ We’ve had to learn how to acquire knowledge, adapt to it and quickly change policies and practices as the virus reveals new truths about itself. We lead and manage differently now,” he said.

The lesson: Effective leadership in a crisis is as much about quick course-corrections as it is about good decision-making.

Energy management
Even at times when all hands must be on deck, human beings are not machines. Human beings need rejuvenation, self-care and recovery.

McCutchen uses quiet drive time to recharge; Plumblee practices meditation and yoga; Fulbright focuses on faith; Hamlin spends time with family; and Garg reaches out to friends for emotional and spiritual support.

The lesson: Self-care and recovery come in many forms including silence, relationships, fitness, and spirituality. Manage your own energy first, then help others do the same.

Marlene Chism is a consultant, executive educator and LinkedIn global learning platform expert. Her books include “Stop Workplace Drama,” “No-Drama Leadership” and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice.” She can be reached at


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