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Five leadership principles from the front lines of the COVID-19 fight in New York and Utah

Five leadership principles from the front lines of the COVID-19 fight in New York and Utah

By Wing Province, MD

Feb 1, 2021

Updated Nov 17, 2023

5 min read

5 Leadership Principles during COVID

When Intermountain Healthcare deployed caregivers to help our peers in New York City during April’s COVID-19 surge, I was assigned to work on the northernmost tip of Manhattan at the Allen Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian Health. 

Here are five principles I learned during my work there — and since my return to Utah — that can help us all become better, more trusted leaders. 

1. Show Up

I define showing up as being willing to do what you ask others to do, then doing it with them shoulder-to-shoulder. 

During the pandemic, when we’re all trying to social distance, leaders could be tempted to give orders and lead from afar. But Lori Weston, the CEO of Intermountain Park City Hospital, illustrates the power of showing up every single day as COVID-19 cases steadily rose in Summit County. 

She held command center meetings Monday through Friday and on Saturdays and Sundays throughout March and April. She attended each one. She set up a drive-through testing site before anyone else did within the system. Rather than just orchestrating that effort from her warm corner office, she was outside, helping our caregivers who were freezing in the wind and snow. Lori brought jackets from home and gave them to our people who were working in the bad weather. She brought heaters from the hospital outside to keep them warm. When that wasn't enough, she went to Walmart and bought hand- and foot-warmers with her own money. She also organized a mobile testing site to help the underserved in our community. Not only did she oversee its execution, but she also did frontline tasks, including running the garbage to the dumpster. No job was beneath her. This meant so much to our frontline caregivers — it was inspiring to work side-by-side with our leader. 

2. Not Me, But We

The focus of truly selfless leaders isn’t on themselves; it’s on others. They give credit to those who do the work and they make personal sacrifices to make sure we survive trying situations like a pandemic.

3. Share the Sacrifice

The notion of shared sacrifice increases trust and builds bridges between the front lines and leaders. We’re all experiencing this pandemic together and it’s up to all of us to be part of the solution. 

I saw this shared sacrifice here at Intermountain. Everyone from the executive leadership team all the way to the front lines took a cut in our 401(k)s. It wasn't something our executive leaders asked all of us to do and they were exempt. It’s the notion of, “I'm not asking you to do anything I wouldn't do myself.” I’ve seen other health systems where the executives ask the frontline workers to make sacrifices they aren’t willing to make themselves. 

4. Separate Facts from Opinions 

So many facts and opinions circulate on social media, on the news, in conversations, and at the dinner table — and it’s often hard to discern where facts end and opinions begin. Leaders need to have the courage to share the facts and the self-restraint to withhold their opinions. Or at the very least, when it's appropriate to share an opinion, to call it out and say: This is my opinion and not a fact. 

5. Give the Honest Bad News Instead of the Dishonest Good News

Many leaders may feel like they need to create a positive narrative, even if it’s built on a false foundation. There’s a tendency for some leaders to share dishonest good news rather than honest bad news. 

Laura Forese, MD, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NewYork-Presbyterian Health, stands out in my mind as an example of how to build trust, even if it’s difficult. 

Every evening Laura would hold a town hall for anyone who worked in her system. She’d share a statistical update on the state of affairs, which at the time was often frightening. She’d report the number of patient deaths, patients discharges, and the numbers of patients who were hospitalized, in ICUs, or on ventilators. Her nightly meeting wasn't limited to executives or managers. Anyone could log on to the system’s intranet to watch. During a shift in the ED, I looked around and nearly everybody was watching between patient tasks or during breaks. 

Her approach to communication was based on clarity and transparency. She could’ve held all that information close to the vest and assumed we as caregivers couldn't handle data that showed a grim picture of what was going on. She showed us she trusted us by sharing this information. She also regularly expressed her trust in us and her gratitude for what we were doing. You couldn't help but trust her in return. She made us feel important, that someone was noticing what we were doing, and that we were equal partners. 

As a result, you wanted to continue to work and to show up for your next shift with a new and positive attitude, hoping that what you did that day would lead to better outcomes and better numbers in her next nightly report. She earned the respect of all of us who were working on the front line. 

The result of each of these lessons is trust, engagement, teamwork, and — eventually — success, not only for caregivers, but for entire communities.

About the author: Wing Province, MD, is a board-certified emergency physician who serves as medical director of Intermountain Healthcare's Park City Hospital and of the Healthcare Leadership Institute.