Spiritual thoughts on leading during the COVID-19 pandemic

Words from March 31, 2020:


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?

How Rituals Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

I was honored with the opportunity to offer a devotional at Adventist HealthCare’s November 5th Mission in Motion conference for its organizational leaders. Here are my remarks:

Good afternoon, colleagues and friends. My name is Jonathan Sachs and I serve as the Associate Vice President for Patient Experience at Adventist HealthCare.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a word of devotion with you before we bless our food and enjoy a meal together.

I would like you to join me for a moment and give thought to a question that has been on my mind: What are we doing here?

We are all busy, we’re all itching to take peeks at our email, patient care at our entity’s continue on, yet we are here at this conference, away from our teams, and sitting a lot. Why?

I’m here to tell you that I figured it out, and the answer is not that our being here is a mandatory condition of employment.

The answer is far more important and deeper than that.

We are here because we are committed to our mission of extending g-d’s care through the ministry of physical, mental, and spiritual healing.

Moralist David Brooks defines commitment as, “falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for the moment when love falters”.

What we are doing today is a part of the, “structure of behavior” for how we keep love alive with our patients and with each other. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (no relation), “Rituals are the framework that keeps love alive”.

I am Jewish and Judaism is well-known for its many rituals including keeping the dietary laws of kashrut, not using electricity on the sabbath, and men wearing a skullcap (called a kippah) to remind us that g-d is always with us and above us. We do this because, without it, without this structure of behavior, we would lose our commitment to living in faith and doing good deeds when we need g-d the most.

If you have ever been to a Jewish service, you may see the men wearing a prayer shawl with fringes on it. We call the fringes “tzitzit” [pictured] and the reason for their being comes from Numbers 37 in the Torah, which says, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments through the generations…and you shall look upon them and remember all the commandments of the Lord and fulfill them, and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray – so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your g-d.”


Photo Courtesy: https://www.enlacejudio.com/2012/08/06/conoce-todo-acerca-del-talit/

We wear the tzitzit because g-d acknowledges our humanity. G-d wants us to “keep the main thing [of doing the good deeds he commands us], the main thing” but knows that we are human and so we are likely to forget or lose track of the main thing in the midst of our busy-ness. For that reason, G-d himself commands Moses to build rituals for us that remind us to stay on track. As leaders, it is up to us to do the same for our team members.

Our teams can lose their way because the world keeps us busy and what we need to do to survive on a daily basis is hard, consuming, and urgent. But often the most important things are those that are non-urgent: Did I say, “I love you” to my spouse and children today? Did I thank a team member for extending g-d’s care in a new way? Did I keep the main thing, the main thing?

Organizational rituals, like today’s conference, like “our main thing”, and like our leadership system are tools for us to use as leaders to keep our commitment to our patients and to build structures of behavior to make sure we never forget what is most important and why we are here.

I always circle the Mission in Motion conference on my calendar because it is a ritual where I get to learn from our speakers and reconnect with you. It renews my commitment to the spirit of our mission and I always look forward to it.

As we go about today, I hope you will join me in thinking of new ways to build rituals in to our daily work so that we stay connected to what is most important more often than just twice a year at this conference. Think about sharing stories or asking questions of your team to keep why we are here at the tops of their minds. By doing so, we will lead team members with purpose, not just with urgency.

Invent new rituals to keep the commitment to our mission alive. Our team and our patients are counting on us.

Let us pray:

Blessed are you lord g-d, king of the universe, for bringing us to this mission in motion conference. Let today be a ritual that creates daily rituals throughout our healthcare system that allow us as human beings to never forget how to achieve our mission of extending your care.

G-d, Please bless our patients as they heal and bless our caregivers as their healers. We are here to support their work, give them guidance, and to nourish their commitment by helping them see the big picture.

As we continue to lunch today, please bless our food.

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, she-hakol ni-hyea bidvaro

Blessed are you, lord our g-d, King of the Universe, by whose word all things came to be. And let us say, Amen.