Just like everyone else, I am concerned, feeling anxious and worried about my family and those closest to me; I struggle with how to manage and deal with this terrible pandemic and everything connected to it. I struggle despite the fact that I have been teaching, coaching, writing about and most of all, thinking about leadership and communication for a solid two decades. I have written five books on these subjects, and I can fill another book with everything I either don’t know or am uncertain about in terms of how best to lead and communicate in really difficult, challenging and uncertain times like these.
“One of the most important things we can do during such a time is to be useful and helpful to others—and that is the calling of all healthcare providers.”
The one thing I have come to understand is that whether it is the coronavirus or any other crisis that shakes us to our core, one of the most important things we can do during such a time is to be useful and helpful to others—and that is the calling of all healthcare providers. Today, they are the personnel on the frontlines of this pandemic who must face and acknowledge their own anxiety and insecurities in the midst of this crisis—but also know that they have a larger responsibility to the people they serve, particularly given how high the stakes are concerning the coronavirus.
The best medical leaders in this time of crisis find that they need to be a better version of themselves and reach deep inside to do the kinds of things that give others direction, a sense of hope, and most of all, create a level of trust—because that is at the core of leadership and how we communicate. With this in mind, consider the following:
When communicating in any public forum, leaders must be truthful and candid.
This is easier said than done, because many leaders, in the effort to give people hope, sugarcoat how serious things really are or make statements that can’t be backed up by facts, science or logic. Giving false hope and communicating misinformation are two of the worst things any leader can do in a time of crisis like we are currently facing.
People listen to leaders who are concise.
Don’t drone on. Don’t pontificate. I like to say “stay within the goalposts” when communicating. That means, identify what key points and messages a leader needs to communicate and put them “inside the goalposts.” Everything outside those posts is dangerous and risky. So what is outside the goalposts? Blaming others. Pointing fingers. Making statements you can’t back up. And frankly, letting your emotions and fear get the best of you. The greatest leaders in a crisis are disciplined and practice self-control, because when a leader communicates off-topic and personal information about out-of-control fears and worries, it has a profoundly negative impact on everyone else.
The greatest leaders step aside and let others who are more knowledgeable in a particular subject area step up and speak out.
The best leaders are not the ones who talk the most in a public forum or press conference. It seems to me that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy get this part right. Yes, they are talking a lot, but they are also deferring and handing off the mic to other experts who can speak with authority and experience on a particular topic. After 9/11, it struck me that then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani did this. Great leaders are facilitators in public settings, allowing others to fill in the blanks and respond to difficult and specific questions. They are not the people who are supposed to know the most about everything.
The best leaders are also the ones who, when they do say something that is either incorrect or needs clarification, have the self-confidence and level of maturity to allow a subject-matter expert to correct or clarify—without any retribution or negative consequences.
Successful leaders don’t lose their cool.
When asked a difficult or challenging question by a reporter or key stakeholder in a public forum, there is no excuse for a leader to attack the questioner. The best leaders understand that attacking the questioner, as well as the question itself, actually communicates a lack of confidence, because the leader clearly doesn’t want to and can’t answer the question. If the answer is “I don’t know,” say so. But there is no reason, and it doesn’t help anyone, to express anger or personal animus toward someone simply asking a tough question. Leaders are supposed to respond with confidence, clarity and a sense of “I’ve got this,” as opposed to “How dare you ask me that question in public,” particularly when the question relates to the crisis at hand.
Leaders with staying power adjust to the times.
Many healthcare providers have functioned very successfully in the past without the help of websites, video conferences or other forms of digital communication. This pandemic has removed that luxury. Healthcare providers now have to use various methods of telemedicine to diagnose, heal and comfort without face-to-face meetings. Some say this shift has changed the delivery of medicine forever. Whether you believe that or not, right now it is your reality. The key is to embrace the use of digital communication in your practice.
Great leaders acknowledge that they are only human.
Healthcare workers have always been a brave and compassionate group. But now, those attributes are being tested as they are often being pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. When the population of the entire world is told to stay home, healthcare providers are expected to continue to heal. You head out each day to the frontline of this battle with your sense of duty and compassion as your motivation. In this circumstance, it is easy to forget that you are merely human. A leader who falls in battle due to a lack of self-care is of no use to those he or she is fighting for. You must use those skills of compassionate communication that you have honed over the years with your patients to now strengthen your own health. Talk about your worries. Remain connected to friends and family.
Great leaders acknowledge and empathize with the pain and struggle people are experiencing.
Simply stating, “Here are the rules—obey them” won’t get things done. The best leaders understand that the current public health restrictions regarding social distancing and staying inside are unnatural and incredibly difficult—especially for parents who have to explain this not just to themselves but also to teenagers and children. I appreciate and respect leaders who acknowledge that and say so publicly. Certainly, leaders should communicate accurate facts, statistics and information, as well as “the rules” we must abide by, but if that is all a leader does, why not just send a mass e-mail and be done with it?
“They understand that their greatest responsibility is to acknowledge the needs and fears of others and to help them get through the most challenging of times.”
Healthcare providers understand that behind the rules and the numbers of those infected—and worse, those who have died—there are real people and families. I’m not saying that being a great leader and communicator in a horrific pandemic is easy—it’s not. Trust me, I struggle every day with it, and I only run a small production company as well as teach, coach and write about these topics. However, I have been spending a lot of time reading about presidential leadership in war time in an effort to put things in perspective. I have learned that Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington all had doubts and fears. But the greatest leaders have one common and consistent trait: They manage and deal with those inner fears and demons, because they understand that their greatest responsibility is to acknowledge the needs and fears of others and to help them get through the most challenging of times.