March 4, 2020

Six Actions for Healthcare Leaders During a Pandemic Crisis

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The idea of a novel virus outbreak, such as the COVID-19 virus, or Coronavirus, occurring is not exactly news to healthcare executives and clinical leaders. While the media might continue to heighten the public’s awareness to the spread of the virus, healthcare executives and teams have trained extensively and practice drills periodically to prepare themselves for a potential outbreak. They prepare for a large variety of other potential incidents including hazardous material, mass shootings or casualties, and pandemics that can quickly become a crisis. Situations like this could significantly disrupt normal business operations and require executives to lean on the trusted relationships they’ve created prior to the beginning of a crisis.

Leadership is almost always tested during times of crisis. An assessment of the leader’s skills is based on the way he/she acts and behaves before, during, and after a crisis. Indeed, it’s often difficult to truly predict the exact crisis, when it will occur, or how long it will last. The real test of executive leadership doesn’t occur when everything is running smoothly; it occurs in the midst of the unexpected scenarios.

Additionally, strong leadership is critical to mitigate or minimize any damage to the reputation or credibility of the healthcare facility during times of significant crisis.  In times of crisis, it’s critical to move quickly and communicate often while taking care of your team members.

Build trusted relationships.

Patrick Lencioni, the author of various books on business team management best known for The Five Dysfunctions of Teams, discusses the costs of failing to build trust. He says it will create waste in the form of inordinate amounts of time and energy managing the behaviors and interactions within the group.

When is the time to start working on trust? The timing is now. Before there is a crisis. Strong strategic and trusted relationships are critical in healthcare particularly between administration and physicians. Fractured relationships often will become very heated during a crisis, so it’s important to build stronger relationships, now. It’s important to recognize that building trust takes time and hard work and that it must be earned. Trusting relationships can be created by being consistent, honest, and supportive, by being a strong and active listener and fostering an environment based on respect and accountability.

Understand your role and responsibilities.

Blaine Bartlett, our MEDI Leadership colleague, defines leadership as the “activity of co-creating coordinated movement that causes actions necessary to produce desired results.” This is critical in times of crisis. The role of the leader doesn’t change, but the focus intensifies.

In fact, during an emergency management situation the titled leader might not be the one who is running the incident command and that position is typically established ahead of the crisis. This is the time when many people will essentially leave their badge, title, and ego at the door.  During incident command training the person who is in charge might be the person who first arrives and will stay in that role until someone arrives who has been previously identified to step in and lead. There is constantly a revision of clear roles and responsibilities evolving in these moments. There are also times when jurisdiction must be established and may be led by others outside of your health system including local community first responders, state, or possibly federal agencies.

Be decisive and adaptable.

A crisis is a point of time where leaders are expected to make quick and often difficult decisions. When the crisis action plan begins everyone must be focused and remain determined to complete the tasks on hand. In crisis, leaders are expected to lead their teams to act and not hold them back from doing their jobs. It’s important for the leader and their teams to quickly evaluate all the information they know and make decisions on the best course of action.

Many times, during a crisis the work environment can become a highly stressed and somewhat chaotic as emotions will run high due to fear and stress. For example, during a pandemic crisis there is a staffing concern to have enough people in the workforce available and healthy to work. It is imperative to protect the employees but also preparing for the additional stress as their own family members could become ill.  It’s critical for the executive team to stop panic from spreading and keep employees informed on the best ways to keep themselves and their families safe while maintaining their obligations to their patients. It can be a very distracting time as people need to figure out childcare scenarios or make healthcare decisions for themselves and their family. Leadership must get ahead of the situation as best as they can to develop the critical action plans needed during this time and adjust when necessary.

Focus on accurate and timely communication. 

As a member of the healthcare C-Suite, it’s important to remember to quickly project important information clearly and concisely in a timely manner. Communicate early and often.  Make sure you are leading confidently and authentically with integrity and honesty. People often look to local healthcare professionals and health departments to guide and reassure them through a community health crisis. Employees and community partners need to know they can trust you with up to date and realistic information and what you are doing to protect the community.

Be confident and optimistic.

A strong leader must remain calm during the crisis and help create optimism. This is not a time for your inner critic to show up to sabotage your thinking. Insecurity can creep in on even the most competent executive. You will be expected to make the tough decisions and help people understand what you are doing about the situation. A crisis in leadership often will be reviewed after the situation passes. This is the time to take responsibility and own areas that went well and share your learnings. If something doesn’t go well it’s important to take ownership of the situation by acknowledging your responsibility and commitment to make appropriate improvements.

Take care of yourself and your team.

Your team will follow your lead. It’s important to hold each other accountable to make sure everyone is noticing each other’s well-being. Understanding what you need in order to lead is important and this includes noticing your own self-care and adjusting as needed. It’s easy to run out of energy when there could be lack of sleep, nourishment, or comfort while you are focused on the specific crisis and increased workload. Strong leadership requires the practice of healthy self-care strategies prior to crisis.  Leaders with a strong self-awareness will look for ways to achieve peak performance and reduce potential burnout.

While the Coronavirus continues to be monitored during this evolving situation, it’s critical that healthcare executives and leaders continue to work together by strengthening their trusted relationships and build stronger teams. It’s also imperative that you become aware of your own leadership competencies and continue to grow new leadership muscle before the next crisis.

For the most up-to-date information and guidelines always go to a reliable source such as the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.

Brent Wallace, MD is an executive coach with MEDI Leadership and is the former Chief Medical Officer of Intermountain Healthcare where he served as the system incident commander and led emergency management for the system and pandemic preparedness activities for both the system and the State of Utah.



Deena Fischer, MA from MEDI Leadership is a trained Public Information Officer through the National Incident Command System. She led various crisis communications efforts for a large multi-state health system which included the HIN1 pandemic influenza crisis. Additionally, she led various information operations within the Joint Information System to ensure consistent, coordinated and timely information during multiple crisis and incident operations throughout the State of Missouri.

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About the author

Brent E. Wallace, MD

Brent E. Wallace, M.D. is a seasoned physician leader, having been the Chief Medical Officer of Intermountain Healthcare for 12 years.

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