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  • Writer's picturePaul DeChant MD, MBA

Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

First things first - this pandemic is evolving rapidly, putting tremendous stress on individuals, families, and organizations. People are sick and dying. It will get worse before it gets better. Those healthcare workers on the front lines of clinical care are doing truly heroic work, putting themselves at risk in the service of others.

The Corona Virus Pandemic has created a VUCA environment like we've never seen before that impacts all healthcare workers and requires values-driven adaptive leadership for our communities to weather this storm.

In case you are not familiar with the acronym, VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity:

  • Volatility - clinical and epidemiological information is changing at speeds we rarely encounter, hour by hour

  • Uncertainty - we've never dealt with a pathogen like this before, so we are in uncharted waters unable to predict the impact of our actions or what will come next

  • Complexity - faced with multiple compounding forces, we are struggling to identify the cause and effect impacts at individual, local, state, national, and international levels on not just healthcare, but all aspects of our lives

  • Ambiguity - as new information is evolving rapidly confounded by mixed messages from various sources it feels like we are feeling our way through a dense fog when we desperately need a clear vision to chart the course ahead.

Such environments have to potential to significantly exacerbate burnout, as the workforce is at high risk of experiencing, without relief, the six classic drivers of burnout - work overload, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and conflicting values.

Actually, each organization will experience COVID-19 burnout to varying degrees, depending on both the quality of the management system and culture already in place before the crisis, and how leaders react in real time.

How healthy is your management system and culture?

Do you have a culture of respect for people deeply rooted from the C-suite to the front line clinicians? Do the doctors and nurses trust the administrators? Do they feel safe sharing information with "higher-ups"? Do they feel empowered to improvise rapidly when confronted with a situation in which standard protocols are not possible?

If your organization does not have such a culture at this point, it's very hard to create one in the crisis. You can mitigate the impact by:

  • Communicating across the organization clearly and frequently, explaining your decisions and relating them to the organization's mission, vision, and values

  • Being visible - spending more time in clinical areas observing the work and asking clinicians what they need, rather than hunkered down with a committee in a conference room crafting complicated contingency plans

  • Providing resources - doing everything you can to provide your clinicians the staffing, equipment, and supplies they need now, and anticipating future needs

  • Empowering decision-making at the point of care - micromanaging will fail. This is no time for command and control approaches. As much as you may feel out of control, trying to enforce tight control will demoralize your clinicians and likely result in bad decisions. People in the midst of the chaos know more than leaders do about what's wrong, and have great ideas about how to fix the problems.

  • Expressing gratitude - your people are going way above and beyond, risking their health and potentially their families health, to serve their patients' needs

  • Anticipating short and long term changes - what will change tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?

At the start of this, many clinicians found renewed purpose as they truly made a difference working very hard long hours responding to the crisis. Mission-driven work is one of the best antidotes to burnout. There is great camaraderie. You may see teamwork like you haven't seen in a while. Your organization may still be experiencing this great feeling, but it won't last forever.

As the days and weeks go on, the sense of mission will be overcome by exhaustion. Morale may well deteriorate. This is when the leadership job will become truly challenging. Be ready to spend more time and effort supporting your clinicians, spending time with them, communicating, providing resources, empowering decision making, expressing thanks, and strategizing on next steps.

Never waste a crisis

How well your organization comes out of this VUCA environment in six to twelve months depends on how well you were prepared beforehand and how well you respond in real time. Times of disruption and uncertainty are opportunities to quickly make significant changes that would otherwise might not be possible - to put into place new processes, heal strained relationships, renew a sense of mission and purpose. Or they can be the thing that breaks you and/or your organization.

As a leader, you can capitalize on this opportunity to benefit your organization or become a victim of it. It's your choice. If you'd like some help, I'm available. Feel free to reach out.

And take good care of your people, and of yourself.



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