Physicians Will Need Different Leadership Styles Coming Out of COVID-19

(Don’t be so focused on operations that you forget about your people. Putting your head down and “doing the work” won’t be enough.)

Uncharted Territory

No physician leader has dealt with this before – a months-long national crisis that’s forced some physicians and staff to work at a herculean pace, while others have been furloughed, laid off, or forced to take drastic pay cuts because entire departments and practices have been shut down.

Your people are facing unprecedented professional and personal changes, including anxiety and uncertainty about the future.  Physician leadership is more important than ever. Over the next few months, how you approach re-building “team”, trust, and confidence in the future, may be more important than any operational strategy.

Over the next few months, how you approach re-building “team”, trust, and confidence in the future, may be more important than any operational strategy.

Some physician leaders will need to deploy different leadership styles and strategies, and quickly develop skills that are outside of their comfort zone.

Ramping Up

Strategy and operations meetings are taking place at a frantic pace.  How do you bring entire segments of an organization back online, considering staffing needs, supply chain challenges, and trying to project volume and capacity – all while creating NEW processes to account for virus-related safeguards?

This work, itself, will create stress, uncertainty, and frustration.  The new normal will NOT meet everyone’s goals or expectations. The team spirit and sense of selflessness that may have shown itself during the heart of the crisis, may be quickly eroded by the reality of this new normal.

What Type of Leadership is Required?

Any underlying organizational, operational, team, and cultural challenges that existed BEFORE this crisis, will still be there.  They didn’t go away. The stress of the crisis revealed your team strengths….and any weaknesses.

Some organizations know that you improve performance, physician alignment and engagement, and career success, by focusing on team.  They had invested in integrating work on collaboration, communication and leadership INTO their day-to-day work.

That work improved department dynamics and performance BEFORE the crisis and paid off DURING the crisis. How does it  translate to the challenges of the coming weeks and months?

Many physicians will default to the autocratic leadership style that is sometimes effective in a crisis (or because it is, indeed, their “default” leadership style?).  Perhaps they shift to “pacesetting” – where the leader grabs the flag and charges forward, demonstrating for the team the energy and drive that’s needed.  You can think about this as “OK – we are past the crisis, let’s put our heads down and get to work!”

Many physicians will default to the autocratic leadership style . . . effective leaders vary and lend leadership styles to fit the needs of the situation, and their team.

In reality, effective leaders vary and blend leadership styles to fit the needs of the situation, and their team.

(See our Blog: Ten Early COVID-19 Physician Leadership Lessons)

The Psychology of Teams: What do People Really Need from You?

Most leaders are focused on meeting the department’s operational needs.  That’s the obvious, immediate, challenge. 

Your people, though, have questions about the future. They are dealing with emotions, fears, and anxieties that are new to them – about the past weeks and about what lies ahead.  They may not express them, but rest assured, they are there.

Putting your head down and just getting to work, may not be the best approach. The psychology of teams tells us that people need:

  • Cohesion – A shared notion of the vision and of what’s important.  You may need to revisit this concept.
  • Trust – People need to trust each other, you as a leader, and the organization.  Where were you on “trust” before this?  What will you do to re-gain it?
  • Confidence in the Future – For teams to function effectively, they need confidence in the future. This may be your greatest challenge.

(See our Blog – about the angst your physicians might have about the job market.)


  • Acknowledge the Trauma – This entire experience has been traumatic for people, even if they don’t openly admit it. Acknowledge the fear, the anger, and the uncertainty.
  • Do People Feel Valued? Things may have happened over the past few months that force them to question how much the organization values them.  They need to hear that they are valued, and to see it.
  • Confidence in the Future. People can accept a level of uncertainty, if and only if, they have confidence that there is a shared vision, and a plan – even if the plan is fluid.  Are you doing enough to give them this confidence?
  • Be Cognizant of Your Tendencies.  People’s natural personality tendencies, including their derailer behaviors that come out under stress, are going to manifest themselves. You need to understand your own tendencies, and those of your people, and adapt accordingly.
  • Leadership Styles. You’ll need to deploy a variety of leadership styles, including a style that is more emotionally supportive, and relationship-focused, than what may have worked for you in the past.
  • Communication.  There is NO more important leadership skill – You need to be an OUTSTANDING communicator right now – both in crafting messages, and in the delivery. You also need to be effective in deploying effective communication processes.
  • Lessons Learned -How do you take advantage of lessons learned during the crisis? What did you learn about yourself?  About your team?  Take advantage the opportunity to model how a team can honestly and frankly evaluate its own performance and USE that data to improve.  It’s a great time to encourage psychological safety.
  • Continue to Model and Teach Team Skills.  You CANNOT just ask people to “work well-together.”  If they don’t have those skills, they couldn’t do it before all of this. They CERTAINLY can’t do it under this pressure.

For teams to function effectively, they need confidence in the future. This may be your greatest challenge.

Relationships and Communication are More Important Than Ever

Now is NOT the time to put your head down and focus on the blocking and tackling.  Now IS the time to focus, even more, on relationships and communication. 

A sports analogy:  When great teams are under pressure, they don’t IGNORE all of the communication and collaboration, trust and “team cognition” skills that made them great – they LEAN on them.   All of the X’s and O’s, and the specific individual skills, are irrelevant if the team doesn’t function as a team.

We’ve been doing work on this topic with Christopher Bono, M.D., Executive Vice Chair, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery for Massachusetts General Hospital, and Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery for Harvard Medical School. Here’s how his group is approaching it,

“Redefining normal will be essential, as it won’t be what we had pre-COVID. We need to find a way for this new normal to work for them, and to relieve anxiety as much as we can. We are trying to channel the faculty’s fears, anxieties, concerns, and frustrations through us as leaders – not to take it on as emotional baggage, but to be sensitive to it. We want to be aware of it, so as to avoid making this all about the mechanics of getting back to work in a normal fashion.”

Christopher Bono, MD
Ex. Vice Chair Dept. of Orthopaedic Sugery Massachusetts General Hospital

Building Trust and Connections

This brings to mind the idea that Leadership is the art of building trust and meaningful connections in an environment where results matter.” (From Marc Lesser’s book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader)

Building trust and ensuring connections, right now, is going to take deliberate work. 

What is your strategy to re-engage your team and have them ready for the coming months and the new normal?  Don’t allow this be a vague concept.  Sit down.  Craft a plan.  Lead.

To learn more about J3Personica and our unique approach to supporting physician leaders, and solving complex problems, visit us at