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.

 

Empathy in action

Several months ago, I ran across this emotional video about the power of empathy and leadership in health care:

I often share this video and Jap’s story for several reasons. His positive attitude, coupled with his thoughts of wanting to do more with his life are inspiring. While his injury took away the use of his legs, it gave him a fresh perspective and new motivation in his life.

From a health care delivery standpoint, Jap’s story teaches us that we must do more for our caregivers and that anyone in the hospital can lead to make a patient’s experience better.

As you watched the video, did you notice what happened when Jap woke up from his accident? The first thing he did was scream out. But, nobody came to his aid. He was on the “diving accident floor” in the hospital, and according to the nurses, everyone on that floor screams after they regain consciousness. To the nurses, every scream was, “just another day at the office.” To Jap though, it was one of the scariest and worst moments of his life, and he was alone.

In my current role, one of my main responsibilities is to work on this very issue. Clinicians can become used to or numb to other people’s suffering. It is not because our bedside caregivers are bad people or doing something wrong, it is simply because of the nature of the work. Part of the role of patient experience is to create systems to remind caregivers that, for the patient, this is not just, “another day at the office.” Part of this work is done by creating mechanisms to constantly remind caregivers that our patients do not come to work in a hospital and the days they are here are unique to them. We must help caregivers connect to the fundamental emotions of most patients: That they are scared, stressed and confused.

The other lesson Jap teaches us is that anyone can lead. Carlos, Jap’s nurse in the ICU, not only goes to him when he screams, but instructs the other nurses how to comfort Jap. Carlos was behaving in a way that creates positive, peer-to-peer accountability. Carlos authorized himself to help the entire team care for Jap in his hour of need. Carlos took it upon himself to provide the reminder that this was a unique day in Jap’s life and he will need help to get through it. Carlos embodied how, in hospitals especially, patients expect more than just us treating a disease or an injury; they expect to be treated like people.

This powerful video shares these lessons elegantly and they apply to any work that we do interfacing with other people.

Thank you for sharing your story, Jap.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Patient experience is about reminding people to see care through the eyes of the patient and to treat their emotions, not just their physical condition. Anyone can lead in patient experience, it is up to leaders to create mechanisms for peer-to-peer coaching and accountability.