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Leading During the COVID-19 Crisis: Building Upon Our Strengths and Addressing Our Weaknesses

By Tom Jackiewicz

When I agreed to share leadership lessons on transformation, COVID-19 was on our radar, but its magnitude and profound implications have exceeded what we fathomed as healthcare executives. With the single aim of saving lives, we’re in the trenches with medical teams, cleaning crews, local and state governments, payers, researchers and suppliers, and area hospitals.

Our medical teams are tired and afraid. Revenue losses are staggering. Trite lessons learned from a COVID-19-free world are no longer relevant and may never be again. So, where does that leave us as we look at months of disruption in an industry we thought was already disrupted?

While uncertainty is the buzzword that will follow us for months, there are some certainties within the chaos.

  1. Care for our caregivers. The type of leadership hospitals need now is grounded in trust, not ego. Leaders need to listen intently without judgment, demonstrate patience and humility, value expertise, and focus on medical teams and other staff. At Keck Medicine of USC, we’re launching a Care for the Caregiver program that offers free housing, comfort amenities and mental health support to our staff members. Even with my 30+ years of experience in healthcare, it is humbling to see the dedication and determination they bring to every shift, and the personal sacrifices and risks they are making for our patients. We must care for them as they face anxiety, grief and exhaustion. When we get to the other side of this pandemic, we will celebrate the thousands of people who made it possible for us to save lives and prevent further outbreaks.
  2. Lean into your strong physician culture or seize this moment to create one. Early in my tenure at Keck I spent a lot of my time with our physicians. Ensuring we had the right people in place with the right credentials was the difference between a successful new health system and empty buildings. It holds true today. The strong wave of physician energy and talent that helped Keck grow, improve quality and expand research is what we are leaning into to keep our medical teams calm and focused. Our physicians are leading us through the chaos of fluctuating demand and fluid care protocols. They support each other and their care teams with patience and compassion. If your physician culture has been weak and weighed down by historic baggage, now may be the time to change the conversation that could lead to positive change.
  3. Divide, conquer and ease up on meetings. At Keck, we have bifurcated our leadership team to address the crisis while ensuring other functions and strategic initiatives don’t stall completely. Leaders who are operationally focused don’t attend nonessential meetings. Meanwhile, other leaders are steering the ship. We communicate frequently by text, email and phone, instead of languishing in meeting rooms.
  4. Make transparency mandatory. Organizations that make transparency a core business value reap its benefits. Employees are more committed to their organization and its mission. Collaboration and innovation emerge because teams are informed and engaged. Frequent and direct communication is the best way to bring transparency into an organization. The absence of communication leaves gaping holes that are filled by rumor and misinformation that spread quickly and deeply. At Keck, we send every staff and faculty member a daily dashboard with current data including positive patients, patients under investigation in-house, PPE inventory by type and size, blood supply and census details. This approach ensures everyone is operating from the same information. Our teams deserve to know where they stand as we ask them to work under extraordinary circumstances.

It’s too early to know what will change forever and what we’ll return to, but as leaders, this is our time. We know a return to “normal” is not in the cards for us or our organizations. We’ll be forever changed— maybe for the better. We will become more resilient. Distinctions between layers in our organizations will blur as we realize what it takes to fight a single, common enemy. We will have built organizational muscles to navigate barriers and regroup after setbacks. We will be more tenacious, and we’ll be ready for what’s ahead.


Tom Jackiewicz is senior vice president and CEO, Keck Medicine of USC

Access a new collection of journal articles on Caring for the Caregivers from ACHE’s Journal of Healthcare Management.

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