Spiritual thoughts on leading during the COVID-19 pandemic

Words from March 31, 2020:

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden

Is anyone else keeping a journal? I have been keeping one, lately. We know that this is a historic moment because it is an unprecedented moment. There are no best practices for a modern, global pandemic. The virus we are fighting is only a couple of months old and we know much less about it than we don’t know. We have models, forecasts, and predictions, but no experience, no comparison. It’s a scary time.

But, think about this: There is no better time in history for a pandemic like this to happen. We know more now medically than we have ever known before.

At the same time, in the eyes of history, how we combatted COVID-19 will look completely inadequate in a future where technological innovation accelerates exponentially. Perhaps even in a few short years, therapy and vaccine development can accelerate to be virtually instantaneous, so a global pandemic may never happen again.

It is that possibility that has Yuval Harari, anthropologist and author of the book Sapiens audaciously asks – What happens when we cure death?

But, we haven’t done that yet. So, here we are, at the beginning stages of a global pandemic that nobody can really say how it all ends and we go back to our regular lives. The subject of discussion on face time and skype in my home lately has been, “What are going to be the legacies of COVID-19? Will we ever shake hands again?”

Regardless of how our actions may look to Monday morning quarterbacks in the future, it is not Monday, it is Sunday, game day, and we are in leadership today. Even more so, health care leaders are called to serve in leadership for the vital institutions that are the hope and focus of a community, which has been asked to sacrifice, to keep us, hospitals, from being overwhelmed and to save lives.

This is the first time in a generation that Americans have been asked to sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves. Some members of our community are forced to take that call in isolation.

History has called leaders to uncertain and open-ended moments like this before. The original transformational leader, Moses, was called by G-d in Exodus to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. However, Moses was not crazy about this idea. He gave g-d three objections:

1) Moses says: “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
2) “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?”
3) “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?”

In other words, Moses asks G-d:

1) Who am I to do this?
2) What do I know?
3) What if they don’t follow?

In times where we are called to a task that feels bigger than us, it is important that we come to it with humility. Moses didn’t say, “I alone can fix it”, he questioned his ability to meet the task, recognizing how big it was. We don’t have a lot of the answers, like to the biggest question, “How does this end?” and that is okay. We have to accept that we don’t and do the best we can given the circumstance.

In fact, humility, is one of the areas that I am reflecting on the most lately. As many of you know, my wife Sheryl is 9-months pregnant with our first child. As of today we are less than 2-weeks away from her due date. We’ve had these 9 months to prepare and have even developed a family strategy, a file repository on google drive, and have been reading books together for months to prepare.

Now, there is a lot of uncertainty in even a routine event due to a microscopic virus that we can’t see, that has brought the world to its knees. As my grandmother used to say, “Man plans and G-d laughs.”

One of the parts of this crisis that makes it especially hard to lead is that we may feel the same humility that Moses felt, while being called to be confident, clear, decisive, relaxed, and in-charge. It is a balance that I hope we can strike together. Unlike most of our community, we are not isolated. We come together as a team, as we have done this morning and I know that we will rise to this occasion and our organization will be stronger for it because we will have learned.

To conclude, I want to ask you to reflect for a moment on the following questions, perhaps in a journal entry:

If you look to a future in which you were to write an autobiography, would the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic be included? If it was included, would it be a short notation, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or one of the volumes of a 3 volume set? What would you like it to say?

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.