Leadership in a crisis

We are living in a historical moment in time. For years ahead, researchers, historians, and analysts will look back on this time to study the coronavirus pandemic and how our leaders reacted to this crisis.

Working in the health care field during this time has been a tremendous education for me. Our team is rising to the occasion, asking for help when needed, and coordinating with the entire community of providers. If there is a silver lining through the COVID-19 crisis it is that the world is seeing that the people who deliver care to patients every day truly have been heroes all along. And in this crisis, my colleagues who are patient facing are answering the call to serve. There’s a lot more work to do, but I am consistently proud and inspired by the members of our team.

Today though, I want to devote some focus to two elected officials who are leading through this crisis in impactful ways, one democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo (New York) and one republican Governor Larry Hogan (Maryland). Interestingly, Hogan and Cuomo serve together as Chair and Vice Chair of the National Governor’s Association.

Both of these men are taking bold steps to combat the coronavirus crisis and save lives, but they are doing it differently. While they are taking many of the same actions like social distancing through stay at home orders, their styles of communication are different.

Both communication styles seem to be effective so far, so let’s explore their actions to date and learn about the implications to the way we can lead.

Let’s start with Governor Cuomo:

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Photo Courtesy: Office of the Governor of New York

New York is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States so Governor Cuomo has gotten a lot of national attention. Governor Cuomo has taken bold action on slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Cuomo instituted a program called, “New York State on Pause,” which included 10 points to institute robust social distancing in the state of New York.

Governor Cuomo’s philosophy is, “socially distant, spiritually connected.” His daily press conferences almost always include two parts:

  1. Data presented through a powerpoint presentation and
  2. The modern equivalent of an FDR fireside chat

The data he presents seems to be intended to share how he makes decisions during the crisis in a transparent way. He shares with the viewers, targeted at the residents of New York State, what he is seeing and the implications of that data on hospital safety and lives saved. This is a powerful leadership tool. People are more likely to follow if the leader’s thinking is presented in a logical way, helping followers see how the leader is “connecting the dots.”

Lost in some leadership communication today is the vital emotional aspect of connecting, which Cuomo uses to give comfort and hope during this difficult time. I have particularly enjoyed learning about Cuomo’s family, particularly about his mother, brother, and his children. He comes off as a son who loves and cares for his mother, an older brother who playfully teases, and father who embarrasses his children. Andrew Cuomo the “character” who is experiencing this crisis together with us is relatable and warm.

Combining both the logos (logic) and pathos (emotion) has make Governor Cuomo’s press conferences a “must watch” during this crisis, which has the added advantage of Cuomo being able to control and manage his message directly, without the filter of the media.

See it for yourself – Here is a link to Cuomo’s press conference from Friday, April 10:

Next, Governor Hogan:

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Photo Courtesy: Patrick Siebert, Executive Office of the Governor of Maryland

Governor Hogan has also taken bold actions on coronavirus and was one of the first Governors in the United States to do so. Hogan took early actions to implement social distancing and ramp-up hospital capacity in the state, including being among the first to extend licensure to retired and out of state providers.

Hogan also communicates regularly, although not daily. His press conferences take place when he has something to say that is new and he usually delivers new messages clearly, bullet by bullet, in what amounts to the smallest number of words possible. Hogan has jumped in staunchly on enforcement, giving leeway to police to enforce social distancing and has made a public example of Marylanders who host private gatherings at their homes by tweeting their mugshots.

Hogan has taken his message, which is focused on delivering the truth and challenging Marylanders to do their part, to several news shows as well. He has answered questions at town halls televised locally and is starting to be known nationally for his willingness to speak up when states are feeling under-resourced by the federal government. Hogan’s overall message is factual and hopeful, but only in a way that makes it dependent on the actions that Marylander’s take individually.

See it for yourself – Her is a link to Governor Hogan’s press conference from Friday, April 10th:

The lesson here is that leadership is not a one-size-fits all model. Styles, particularly in crisis communications, can be different and personal but still deeply impactful if it is genuine. Cuomo’s discussions are longer, he sits down, giving it the feeling almost of being in his living room. Hogan’s press conferences are shorter, more formal, and to the point.

Evident in both styles is the genuine empathy they each have for the people of their states as well as their own personal connections. Hogan was diagnosed at the beginning of his first term with cancer and has recovered, but his compromised immune system puts him in the “high-risk” category for mortality if he contracts the virus. Cuomo talks about taking care of his elderly mother and watching out for his health. Additionally, Governor Cuomo’s brother, Chris Cuomo, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.

At the end of this crisis, Governors Cuomo and Hogan’s successes will be measured in how the residents of their state followed social distancing and ultimately in the number of lives lost. History will look back on this time assessing how leaders performed by compelling the residents of their states to follow social distancing and give the health care system time to catch up.

There is a ways still to go in this crisis. Thus far, though, Governors Cuomo and Hogan are earning high marks for their communication styles.

 

Transformational leaders communicate and connect

As we discussed in the last post about Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, transformational leaders are effective communicators. Not only do they share important information with the leadership team to create clarity and focus, but they also communicate important ideas with the entire team.

I recently watched the TED Talk linked below about what happens to our brains when we communicate effectively. The implications for understanding the science is both intuitive while simultaneously being amazing to see. Please watch it here:

As Dr. Hasson illustrates, good storytellers have an ability to connect with an audience. Effective storytelling causes the audience to connect with the speaker, hear similar information as others around them, and then share it with other people, creating a multiplier effect. Honing the ability to communicate for this type of impact is an advantageous competency for transformational leaders. 

While some leaders are better communicators than others, almost all transformational leaders have the ability to connect through public speaking. The bad news is that many people fear public speaking or are honestly not very good at it. One of my least favorite activities is going to a conference and going to a session with a boring speaker.

The good news is that it is very attainable to become a better public speaker. Carmine Gallo, the author of Five Stars and Talk Like TED gives some solid advice about how to improve public speaking going all the way back to Aristotle. He explains what it takes to tell a good story, learning from Hollywood. He also describes how much preparation and homework go into developing a good talk.

Connecting in the way Dr. Hasson describes is an essential skill for transformational leaders. Learning how to do so is the first step because not everyone is born as a natural storyteller. But it is a skill that can be learned.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Transformational leaders use stories and effective public speaking techniques to connect with their audiences. The science shows what happens when a speaker and audience’s brains connect and it is what builds understanding and movements towards change. 

Your reputation precedes you

The bible tells the story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Their story sheds light on how we develop reputations. As Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky points out, both Jacob and Esau have their names changed in the story. Jacob’s name was changed to, “Israel” after outsmarting his uncle, Laban, fighting with his brother Esau, and battling an angel. For Esau the story is different. Esau’s name was changed as well to what is loosely translated as, “Blood-hungry Wild Man” simply for the way that he asked for some of his brother’s red lentil soup.

Rabbi Kamenetzky asks, “It is quite disconcerting. Each brother had a name change. But [Jacob] had to have his hip dislocated, he had to battle an angel. All [Esau] had to do was slurp some soup, and he acquired a demeaning name for eternity. Is that fair?”

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While it may not be fair, it is an important lesson in life, especially for leaders. It is much harder for a leader to positive a reputation than it is for them to earn a negative reputation. For example, I remember a colleague of mine once giving me some good advice: “In managing people, there are no throw away lines.” Lack of clarity can throw a team into chaos and this sentiment could one day evolve into a leader developing a reputation for being a bad communicator, for example.

The solution to managing our reputation is self-awareness and the ability to control our emotions. We do that first by being intentional about what we are trying to accomplish and what reputation we need to accomplish those goals. For example, as a leader, I feel that it is a regular part of my job to remind my team that I am a human-being and that I make mistakes. In being transparent, my goal is to help build a team culture where we give everyone the benefit of the doubt (this only applies for team members without performance issues – that’s a different topic) so problems come to the surface to be solved. At the same time, I need to balance this by being self-aware about over-sharing, which could cause undue stress to the team.

In contrast to self-awareness and emotion managing, some leaders have a reputation for being pushy, unreasonable, and generally challenging to work with. However, they develop a reputation that, in spite of their behavior, “they get things done,” which justifies keeping that person in a leadership role on the team. That reputation can hurt a leader in a role with transformational goals because the leader’s reputation is that they cause havoc among teams, but the ends justify the means. That kind of transactional reputation undermines the leader’s abilities to be successful in achieving transformational goals, as the culture will be inherently more resistant to any suggestion made by a bulldozing leader, as it would be seen as more hierarchical than transformational.

Regardless of the specific line of work, a leader’s reputation precedes them. People will always talk about the leader, and whether a leader can control it or not, he or she will always have a reputation. Even the bible tells us that it is easier to earn a negative reputation than a positive one. It is for this reasons that leaders must become self-aware and manage their emotions, so that they can manage many different situations without being burdened by a negative reputation.

KEY TAKEAWAY: If you are a leader, you already have a reputation. Is it a good one or a bad one? If you could be an invisible, “fly on the wall,” what would people say about you? How does that help or hurt you accomplish your goals?

Getting on the same side of the table

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People belong in the category of must read classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People. Covey outlines lessons that are important for everyone to internalize and it is a great starting point for leaders. The first time I read it, I listened to the audiobook, which Covey narrates himself. It’s a wonderful way to take in the lessons in the book because you can hear his emphasis at different points.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win/win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

But that list only barely touches the surface of the wisdom and life lessons outlined in the chapters devoted to each individual habit. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one that I found to be especially vital.

7HabitsIn the world of patient experience, we talk a lot about communication. Communication with the patient, with appropriate family members, and between clinicians caring for that patient is an area of opportunity for the industry. Covey talks about a deep communication practice in his chapter on habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

In habit 5, Covey touches on several key concepts including, “Empathic listening,” “Diagnose before you prescribe,” and “Understanding and perception”. These skills require self-awareness and the ability to pause and reflect on our behavior.

In the section on “Diagnose before you prescribe,” Covey provides the example of an eye exam. He writes that the doctor does not just take off his glasses and say, “Use these, they’ve worked for me for years!” He takes the time to help the patient explain what they see and he fits the corrective lenses for them.

Too often, we do the opposite. I catch myself in this pattern of behavior too often. Just because something worked in a situation we faced, does not mean that the same strategy and tactics will work for another person with different skills and different life experiences. Taking the time to diagnose what is going on will help us be better leaders and better people.

My favorite part of habit 5 though is the section called, “Four Autobiographical Responses.” In this part of the book, Covey summarizes a hypothetical conversation between a parent and child who wants to drop out of school. Covey presents the same scenario in three different ways. In the first, the parent tries to guide the child by lecturing based on the parent’s own experience. In the second scenario, the reader sees the child’s impression of the conversation and how the child feels ignored and misunderstood.

In the final scenario, the parent asks the child the right questions, listens to understand and does not pass judgement or lecture. By being more open, slowing down, and learning what the child is going through, the parent learns that the child wants to drop out of school because of a recently diagnosed learning disability. By listening and interacting with the child in an empathetic way, the parent learns what is really behind the child’s desire to leave school.

What happens next in the story is remarkable. The parent and child begin to problem solve together. Covey calls this, “getting on the same side of the table.” This concept spoke to me. Lately, I have been trying to find as many ways as I can to “get on the same side of the table” with the people I serve.

Getting to the same side of the table means problem solving, having healthy discussion, and collaborating in a way that builds the relationship, not taxes it. The more we can be on the “same side of the table,” rather than debate or disagree to win an argument, the better the world can become.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a foundational book in practicing leadership. Habit 5 discusses how we can “get on the same side of the table” with other people by engaging in”Empathic listening”, “Diagnose before you prescribe”, and “Understanding and perception”.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is available for purchase on Amazon for $30.00 (does not include Prime discount)

Presenting information Exceptionally

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The cartoon above is from the New Yorker and it is one of my favorites. For those of us whose days are spent in the Microsoft Office suite of applications, we know that “death by powerpoint” can feel all too real.

We have all seen the seemingly endless bullets and presenters reading off their slides as if we are illiterate. I have experienced countless presentations, especially at conferences, that are graphically busy or unreadable (my biggest pet peeve is the “Sorry, you probably can’t read this”), presentations that drag on, or do not reach a clear conclusion. Powerpoint has been so misused that some organizations have taken deliberate steps away from it, including the US Military in 2010 and Amazon who banned it for executive presentations in 2018.

I would argue that powerpoint is actually an important presentation tool, but only if used correctly. Organizations that use it well have developed a set of rules that keep the audience’s attention and helps to form a narrative. TED Talks, the popular and informative non-profit series of presentations encourages speakers to use powerpoint as a visual aid – no bullets. Many of the talks accomplish the goal of “spreading ideas” often because of the images on their slides.

By way of a quick example, On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver presents on a complex topic every week, using a presentation style where the “slides” he shows add to his narrative. During this current season of the show, he presented on Robocalls. Oliver used images and graphics that can be used in a powerpoint type presentation.

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There is no reason why we cannot present information like John Oliver. Oliver, like many other compelling speakers, uses age-old techniques that work to not only present information, but, more importantly, have the audience remember and internalize the message.

Thats where Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get From Good to Great by Carmine Gallo is most helpful. In his book, Gallo discusses age old techniques dating back to Aristotle that detail how to deliver information in a compelling and memorable way.

51rO+WElUrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Before I talk about some of the book content, it is important to note that this book is focused on presenting information in a way that customers understand. He references many different case studies, including one in healthcare, discussing excellent communicators and how they use presentation to create 5-star customer experiences. While there are tricks and tips in this book, they come at the end after he discusses the cultures of organizations whose team members consistently and reliably communicate with their customers in a service-oriented way.

My favorite anecdote on this point is one about  theonline shoe sales giant Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced SHAY). Hsieh believes in training customer service team members to present well, but that is not done by scripting them. To demonstrate how customer friendly the staff has been trained to be, he would call the Zappos customer service line in front of reports and ask a random question like, “can I order a pizza?”. The staff would then help the customer in any way they can, which in this case was to help them order a pizza.

With a supportive culture that engages and empowers, the tactics are simpler to learn and implement to create 5-star outcomes and are contained in this book. Those tactics include using compelling visual aids, crafting a story using the three-act-play narrative structure, and including credibility (ethos), emotion (pathos), and logic (logos) to keep your audience engaged and following along. Gallo also discusses how most compelling stories are presented in about 10 minutes or less.

At its foundation, a presentation, whether to a group or one on one is a form of a social contract. The presenter will offer the listener new information and hold their attention while doing so. In exchange, the listener will take their time to listen to the presenters ideas and engage with them. Presenters often take that for granted, but should not.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Presenting information, when done well, is a powerful tool for leaders who want to shape a culture of good communicators. Good presentations use stories as well as the credibility of the speaker, emotion, and logic to make its points and engage the audience. 


Five Stars is available for purchase on Amazon for $27.99 (does not include Prime discount).