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  • Susan Snedaker

Lessons in Leadership

About six weeks ago, my team and I were tasked with setting up a drive through vaccine clinic and a walk-in vaccine clinic in a matter of days. We created a task force, set up daily meetings and worked through the logistics. It was a Herculean task because, well, no one had ever done it before. I am proud to say that both clinics were up and running on time, the processes worked as designed and the flow through both locations enabled us to vaccinate thousands of people. I've lost count now, I think we're approaching 25,000 or 30,000. We were not the largest organization in town, we were not the most robustly staffed - probably just the opposite. We were challenged to do this work in addition to managing the hospital operations where we were handling a COVID surge of unparalleled magnitude.

But we succeeded on all fronts.

Here are some things I've learned or been reminded of during this crisis - basics that serve us all well.

COVID vaccine drive-through clinic

Leaders Listen

Candidly, I've seen good and bad examples throughout this process. What I have seen work is when leaders ask smart questions, when they challenge their expert teams with problems to solve and then really listen to the solutions. Leaders look for potential issues and work collaboratively to discuss and address them. I often say "spirited debate is the foundation for excellence" because when people can safely voice concerns and issues, the result is always better, stronger, more successful than when disagreement is silenced.

What fails? Just the opposite. When leaders assume they know the work better than the people doing it, when they assume facts not in evidence (to use TV legal language), and when they issue directives without listening to concerns and potential issues.

Leaders should be uniquely qualified to see the big picture, gather the needed resources (people, technology, funding, space, etc.), and pose the challenge in a clear, direct manner. They should be able to negotiate outcomes, diplomatically steer dialog in the right direction, ask hard questions, ask clarifying questions, and ensure the required outcome will result from the action plan being created. If that's something you don't know how to do, you should team up with a leader who does - or contact me - I'm happy to discuss effective leadership anytime.

Leaders are Compassionate

This pandemic has kicked us hard. No one is immune from the stress of this time in the world.

As leaders, our job is to put aside our own stress and our own issues in order to lead a group of people to achieve required results. That's really hard when you are struggling with your own issues on the home front - whether that's a spouse's loss of employment or teenagers rebelling at this new social paradigm or young children needing help with school or elderly parents needing more help than you feel you can provide...the list goes on and on. Everyone has their issues at home, that's the nature of life and the nature of this pandemic. So how, as a leader, do you muster the strength, the courage, and the energy to be the leader your team needs despite all of that?

There is no magic answer, but what I've learned about myself is this. First, I need enough sleep. Without that, everything blurs. Not to say I've been getting it. Like the other leaders I've been working with on this project, we've all awoken in the middle of the night (several times, usually) with a worrying to-do list or all of the negative what-if scenarios floating around. There are no easy answers, but at least setting yourself up to get sleep and rest is really key.

The second part, for me, is tapping into compassion. It's proven that our stress is reduced when we help others. So, I stop and think with each interaction, how can I help? how can I be of service? If you think that sounds a bit PollyAnna-ish, it's not. It's oddly selfish. Being of service makes ME feel good - so everyone wins. Yes, there is the over-extension of that which can be detrimental to one's own interests but if you take care of yourself first then take care of others, you'll find the energy to lead.

When we are kind, when we choose soft words instead of harsh ones, we can effectively lead our teams. They are exhausted and stressed as well, but they will be motivated by a shared mission and a few kind words. Thank you goes a very long way. I have probably said Thank You a thousand times each day and meant it every time because I know how hard it is to dig deep and carry on, but we do.

Leaders Support Each Other

One of the most notable aspects in the early part of our planning was the leadership team that gathered to create the initial plan for the vaccine clinics. We all supported one another; there were no politics, no silos. Instead, I heard people saying "How can I help you with that?" or "My team can take care of that" or "Hey, can anyone help with this if we take care of that?" This collaboration at the leadership level is what drove our early success. We came together as a team to solve a problem and we did whatever it took to do so.

The challenge is sustaining that over time. As normal day-to-day demands filter back into our work lives, it's easy to begin to get a bit selfish, to say 'we've done enough, now it's time to focus on our work.' That may be partially true, but it's my view that's when the highest level of leadership in the organization needs to set clear priorities and expectations so that this doesn't happen.

Leaders also provide a safe space for their peers to vent. It's normal to feel anger, frustration, sadness, fear or anxiety. As leaders, we're human and we need to support one another. My peers and my direct reports know they can come in my office anytime (yes, socially distanced and wearing a mask), close the door and simply vent. There is no topic that is off-limits. I do my best to listen and to help them relieve some of the stress. Often just talking about it resolves the stress, sometimes we problem solve, sometimes I just give them a different perspective which shifts things just enough to feel a bit better. Everything said in confidence is kept in confidence. There has to be that level of trust and we have developed that. I know exactly who I can talk candidly with and share my concerns, frustrations and expectations and they know they can trust me with the same. It's a necessary and vital relief valve.

There are no magic answers, but great leaders arise from great need. We are in that time and we each have the opportunity to be the leader we know we can be, to deliver exceptional results and most importantly, be kind and compassionate. I know in twenty years when I look back on this time, I'll be proud of the work I've done, the positive impact I've had on my community, and the positive impact I've had with on my teams (peers, direct reports, front line staff). I know I've also been positively impacted by the collaboration with amazing people at all levels of the organization.

I've certainly made my share of mistakes, but I have tried to demonstrate these leadership traits consistently. My hope is that some of this is helpful to you in this critical time.

Stay healthy, lead well.


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