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Physicians, don’t lead alone: Teamwork and forward-thinking imperative during pandemic


Contrary to what some believe, leaders shouldn’t go at crisis management alone

Leadership during crisis requires a balance between reflective and forward thinking. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a briefing in the early days of the pandemic, “You don’t fight the last battle.” He’s talking about looking forward. He’s not concerned about what happened last week; he’s anticipating what will happen next week and the week after that. And as Dr. Aaron Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine so aptly put it in a recent column: This pandemic “is a marathon, not a sprint. Both though, require running.”

It’s a delicate balance to focus enough on the past to learn from it, but leaders must avoid becoming preoccupied with the past so much that it hinders their ability to move forward. Now is the time to prepare for the next crisis, in whatever form that may take.

As a leadership scholar, I have the privilege of teaching students and alumni of the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Physician MBA Program. These are physician leaders making critical decisions on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now more than ever, their leadership is crucial. In fact, not only has the pandemic directly impacted most of our Physician MBAs’ work, but more than half of our soon-to-be graduates has been tasked with helping to lead their organizations through the crisis.

It’s a mistake to think learning starts when the crisis is fully over. It’s also a mistake to think an organizational problem is solved prematurely. Consider where we are now. The second surge of COVID-19 is beginning in some states, and fall is here. We’ve been repeatedly warned about the challenges the country will face during the upcoming flu season. If physician leaders didn’t immediately and continually engage in the learning process over the last several months, relevant lessons have already been lost. During crisis, leaders need to ask, “What were we doing previously that undermined or facilitated our ability to manage this crisis?” “What went well and what didn’t?” and “What are our peers doing?” To that point, it is not too late for leaders to expand their network and create relationships outside of their own workplace for the sake of learning. Spanning boundaries in this way is a great way to generate new knowledge and insights that can be used elsewhere.

Contrary to what some believe, leaders shouldn’t go at crisis management alone. They can, and should, create a team to work specifically on learning. They should reach out to trusted colleagues for help in generating and evaluating ideas. They should also secure diversity in their team to help ensure diverse perspectives on problems.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of leaders dealing with their staffs’ emotional needs. This pandemic has taken an incredible toll on health care workers. Amid longer hours, fear of the virus—both in terms of their own safety and those of their loved ones-- and job uncertainty, many haven’t had a break since the pandemic’s onset. The emotional and physical toll has created a level of fatigue among health care workers that many have never experienced before. This not only affects how those workers feel, but how they perform on the job, how quickly they can recover and how much information they can process and retain.

Leaders must look at the big picture. The key to this is looking for opportunities to learn throughout the entire crisis management process. They also need to think -- and engage in discussions about their organization’s future. Leaders also have to face the reality that certain goals, if not critical to an organization’s immediate survival, may have to be put on the back burner to simply get through the crisis. As it concerns the pandemic, this is a time to remain focused, especially as fall and winter approach. Remember, the very best physician leaders will prepare for the next crisis before their peers see it coming.

Professor Christopher O.L.H. Porter is a leadership scholar and serves as the faculty chair for the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Physician MBA Program, an MBA program designed exclusively for physicians.

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