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Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
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Leading Through a Crisis: How Medical Professionals and Leaders Step Up to the Plate


As of April 7, 2020, the COVID-19 virus has caused well over 1 million infections, with over 350,000 cases in the US alone. [1] The coronavirus has swept through hundreds of countries, devastating the healthcare systems of China, Italy, and now the US. Worldometers stats show over 76,000 deaths have occurred worldwide. 

Millions of people worldwide are in a state of fear and uncertainty. 

The reality that medical systems aren’t prepared to handle what’s happening is beginning to sink in. There aren’t enough beds. There aren’t enough ventilators. And there aren’t enough medical staff to care for the sick streaming in worldwide.

Doctors and medical staff are on the frontlines, fighting this disease with every ounce of their being. They’re putting their health and families at risk every time they go to work. 

During times of crisis like this, your leadership is more important than ever. What should you do during this time? 

The first reaction is to panic. But that is not what leaders do. 


Here are 4 ways you can navigate effective leadership during this crisis:

Have a clear vision of what is happening and what is needed

Vision will give you strength. As a leader, you need to lead with strength and make the right decisions. In order to strengthen your decision-making during a time of crisis, you need information as fast as possible.  The situation is changing quickly. Updates are happening minute by minute. To ensure you lead from the front, you need to have be aware of the crisis in real time.

During the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2003, and even now during this crisis, many leaders had to overcome the normalcy bias, which can cause them to underestimate the possibility of a crisis as well as the potential impact it could have. [2]

In other words, everyone, including medical professionals, are used to living in normal times.  We are relatively slow to recognize the crisis when it begins. There is a phase of denial, “it can’t be that bad” and it’s hard to believe it’s actually happening.  

Being aware of the developing crisis and its implications on your people gives you clarity and vision that enables you to lead from the front with a strong decision-making ability. 


Make Decisions Based on Facts, Not Emotions

When you begin to see your own business shut down and your staff starts to break down emotionally, you’ll need to be a beacon of strength. It can be easy to give in to emotions during a time of crisis.  All great leaders feel the anxiety and concern of their people. 

As a leader, you need to unify your team behind the single most important purpose, based on facts, not emotions. One of the best leadership traits during a crisis is the ability to be “deliberately calm,” which is your ability to detach from a frightening situation and think clearly about how to navigate it based on the fact at hand. [3]

Calm is contagious.  Your demeanor, as well as your actions set the tone for the rest of your team.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t get scared. And it certainly doesn’t mean you overlook the severity of the situation. It simply means you need to step back from the emotion involved in the situation and make decisions based on facts, nor fear. 


Take Action

When panic sets in during a crisis, the first thing people do is look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance. The last thing your staff wants is for you to do nothing. To say nothing. To appear like you don’t know what to do. They need reassurance and action.

Even if you aren’t sure of the exact action in that moment, simply communicating to your staff that you’re working hard, meeting with other leaders, and are taking steps to move forward will reassure them and help relieve their fears. Communication is critical. 

Fear and uncertainty can be debilitating.  The second part of this reassurance is to give people tasks that need to be done and are important.  During high stress times, break down bigger jobs into smaller chucks so that people are not overwhelmed. People need wins.  They need a sense of accomplishment for doing each task.  

We know that action trumps fear.  Give your people positive actions to take to decrease their fear of the unknown.  


Move Forward Together

People need leadership the most during times of crisis. 

You need to be able to inspire your team to move forward together.  Your team is only as good as the leadership you can offer. The best thing you can do is to make the right decisions and take the right action that helps others take the right action. 

Your team will mirror you. When you stand still, waiting to move, your team will stand still, too. Take action that instills confidence in your team. By moving forward and taking steps to follow proper protocols, they’ll be able to move forward as well. 

Remember, they’re waiting for you to set the example.  While you may feel worried, concerned, or scared, you’re in the position you’re in because you are a leader. Your team is waiting for you to set the right example and move forward in the right way.

When you move, they’ll move with you. 


References & Citations




[2] Omer, H., Alon, N. The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma. Am J Commun Psychol 22, 273–287 (1994)


[3] Helio Fred Garcia, “Effective leadership response to crisis,” Strategy & Leadership, 2006, Volume 34, Number 1, pp. 4–10.



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