Ten Early Physician Leadership Lessons from the Frontlines of COVID-19

It’s not too early to explore what this crisis is teaching organizations and physicians about leadership. What works?  What doesn’t?  How do we move forward facing a challenge most of us never imagined and for which there is no playbook?  How do we prepare to come out of this?

One thing we are hearing- investing in physician leaders pays off.  Organizations who’ve been committed to developing individual leadership, and team collaboration and communication skills, are seeing the benefits when they’re most needed.  One of our clients sent us this note:

“We are seeing the benefits of this past year’s leadership development program every day in the way clinicians are stepping up to lead. Never thought we’d have to apply your teachings like this… Thank you.”

(See: Letter from Cedars Sinai’s Surgeon in Chief to His Staff)

Ten Lessons Shared by Clients

Ten observations from our clients (Representing academic medical centers, community health systems, and physician groups):

Don’t Default to Autocratic Leadership -Trust and Empower People

Give people a sense of autonomy and control where you can.  Trust people to use their best judgement when making decisions, encouraging them to do what they believe is right, recognizing that information is improving hourly and that certain recommendations will need to be changed.  Empower people to make decisions. Not all decisions can or should be made centrally.

Acknowledge the Fears and Pain of Your People 

People are not only dealing with the crisis as physicians, providers and caregivers, but as human beings with fears about their own health, about their family, and even about job security and their financial future.  People respond to a combination of honestly, humility, empathy, and optimism.  Help them to rally around the mission, the values, and each other.

(See – a Note from a Surgeon about Gratitude, Patience and Grace)


Communicate regularly with your team; disseminate to the leaders’ teams; communicate widely; be honest, but positive and be thoughtful about the words you use.  A well-intended, but poorly crafted, email or statement can do a lot of damage in a crisis.

“A well-intended, but poorly crafted, email or statement can do a lot of damage in a crisis.”

Delegate Communication Effectively 

Get better at delegating communication – give your people clear and consistent messages to deliver. This is a common gap in any complex organization – it’s exponentially worse in a crisis.  Senior leaders may be over-tasked managing up, down and across.  It’s essential to effectively delegate to those in leadership directly below them to make sure questions can be asked and answered in a timely fashion.

Focus on Relationships, Trust, and Gratitude 

It’s not just about getting the work done. Effective leaders know that it’s about communication, relationships, connection and ensuring that colleagues and staff know they are valued and empowered.  Teams that know each other and trust each other, respond more effectively.

“Teams that know each other and trust each other, respond more effectively.”

Create a Sense of Confidence 

Your people – physicians, nurses and staff, need confidence in the future and they are looking to physician leaders for that sense of confidence even when things are this uncertain.

This CAN be a Powerful Team-Building Opportunity 

A crisis will quickly reveal gaps in leadership and team dynamics.  Some leadership teams, though, have used the crisis to deploy the skills they’ve been working on.  They are reminded, quite acutely, of the importance of supporting and valuing each other. 

Know Your People 

Have realistic expectations.  If you understand your team’s strength and challenges, individually and as a group, you can better motivate them, support them, and position them for success.

Let Your Values Drive Decisions 

If you’ve established the right organizational values, you can let these drive your decisions.  People may not like all of the implications but it’s easier to communicate difficult messages when people are confident the decisions are in line with your values.

Re-Connecting to Purpose – Celebrate it 

In this adversity, physicians and healthcare workers in general seem to be reconnecting with their purpose, which is often lost in the day to day of normalcy – acknowledge it. Celebrate it.

(See our blog about the “practice” of leadership)

Start Planning for the Future – NOW 

This may seem impossible right now, but keep in mind:

  • The Challenges that Existed Before Will Still Be There.  Organizations of good people tend, in times of crisis, to drop everything and do what they need to as a team.  Realize that the challenges that existed before the crisis will still be there.  The real challenge will be taking what we learn from the crisis and moving forward, strategically.
  • How Do You Create SOME Sense of Confidence in the Future?  Celebrate the work, today, but realize that people need confidence in the future.  Your people are already thinking ahead and are concerned, and nervous .  It’s not too soon to have a group outlining lessons learned and what the future might look like.  If you can already be working on a plan, and engage people in the discussions, they may not have the entire picture, but they’ll have faith that you are, as a group, going to find solutions.

“Your people are already thinking ahead and are concerned, and nervous. It’s not too soon to have a group outlining lessons learned and what the future might look like.” 

  • The Stress of the Crisis Will Show Itself as We Come out of This.  Can we take the good will/esprit de corps that comes out of the crisis and apply it to the work moving forward?  People can get negative, quickly, once the emotional roller-coaster of the crisis subsides.  This is especially true as they are finally processing the stress of the crisis. 

We Will Never Go Back to the Way Things Were

As one leader put it, “Crisis brings opportunity for significant leaps in innovation and creative solution building;  Revolution rather than evolution, which is so rare in healthcare.  We will never go back to the way things were and frontline physicians are recognizing this, already.  They have been thrust into a “Proof of concept” experience and suddenly the opportunity to restructure the care delivery model, in service of our values and our vision is right in front of us.”

This opportunity to re-think our healthcare delivery model might be exhilarating if it weren’t wrapped in the trauma of this experience.  The job of physician leaders is to help colleagues and staff to navigate what will be, certainly, a challenging and uncertain recovery period.  For most, it will be the leadership challenge of their lives.

A special thanks to those colleagues and friends who took time to share their thoughts: Oregon Medical Group, Massachusetts General Hospital, CHRISTUS Health, Premier Medical Group, and Yale Medicine

. . . and, more importantly, for all you are doing for your patients, your teams, and you’re your communities.

To learn more about our approach to supporting physician leaders, visit us at www.j3personica.com