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Leadership in Transition

By Jef Williams

We are being tasked to deal with levels of uncertainty many of us have never had to face in our careers. The impact of 2020 is putting stress on our jobs, positions and organizations. To deal with the crisis at hand most have had to shift leadership styles toward crisis management.

Making decisions in real time based on urgency and criticality means less communication and putting aside the non-urgent items and tasks leaders are expected to address. The internal values and mission of investing in people and culture are temporarily suspended to simply keep the organization functioning and meeting the greatest mission of health care – caring for and treating patients.

I’ve talked with many leaders over the past few months and none enjoy the part of their job related to downsizing, furloughing, reducing patient access and asking support staff to work extra shifts to cover for positions that were laid off. But in times of crisis, this is the job. However, we must be careful to remember that crisis management is a temporary leadership model and is not sustainable over long periods. While we are not over the multiple layers of 2020’s difficulties, I believe it’s time to reintroduce ourselves to the better model of leadership that emphasizes communication, promotes greater team performance and positively impacts the organization.

There are many ways leadership can transition. Three I am finding common in recent days are differentiating urgency from importance, focusing on long-term solutions and communicating and engaging our teams successfully.

Recent events have required focusing on urgency. In crisis what is urgent is also what is important. While this serves well in making quick decisions and acting decisively to address the problems immediately in front of us, long-term efficacy in leadership differentiates urgency from importance. As Stephen Covey famously stated in his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” we cannot fall into a pattern of the tyranny of the urgent. Furloughs and layoffs have been required to manage revenue downturns and right-size operations. As we bring people back to work, we must consider the value of providing some level of security and a vision of the future (albeit still uncertain for many). The urgency of ramping up operations must also include the important work of investing into the people and teams we manage.

It has been impressive to see the agility of health care in adjusting to meet an unexpected situation. From pop-up care facilities in parking garages to shifting to parked car waiting rooms we have seen the best in doing what is needed at an expedited pace. These stop-gap decisions are necessary in a crisis. But much like stopping a leak in your floating boat, the repair isn’t designed to be permanent. As life transitions to the new normal, leaders will need to identify those stop-gap measures and restructure to meet long-term solutions. Getting a leaky boat to shore with a T-shirt is success – but you are not taking it out again until permanent repairs are made. Consider cars replacing waiting rooms; will this work in states with extreme temperatures or with people using public transportation? Shifting to long-term lasting improvement will only strengthen our organizations.

Top down leadership is the most effective form of leadership in a crisis. There is no time to build consensus or share information other than what is needed at that point in time. Pulling in control from others to centralize decision-making is natural, even necessary, when managing a crisis. While this is the most efficient model in performing well during that period, it is difficult to sustain while looking to build strong, empowered, engaged and high-performing teams. We are not through this period of challenge but consider the impact this has had on the people we lead. Emphasizing communication that is transparent and allows for questions and feedback may be the best path toward reducing personnel anxiety and frustration. We may not have all the answers, but we can share what is being done by executive leadership. Good leadership engages. Most have not had the time to do so amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many still are running at accelerated paces, but as things begin to normalize consider ways to engage your teams and organization.

I suspect we will be talking about this into 2021 as there is currently no end in sight. The task of leading and making decisions never goes away. The process and systems we follow may change due to circumstances and forces beyond our control, the role does not go away. Let us continue to strive to self-assess our positions, situations and decisions in light of the people and teams we lead.

Jef Williams, MBA, PMP, CIIP, is a managing partner at Paragon Consulting Partners.

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