Leadership and Helpership during a Crisis

Infographic – Leadership & Helpership during a Crisis

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The saying “these are unprecedented times” rings through the hallways of healthcare institutions and ZOOM meetings across the world.  We are seeing our teams bond and people stepping up into uncomfortable roles that they had never planned to assume before. Many are finding themselves reluctantly in leadership positions by the simple fact that their peers and colleagues look to them for support.  More generally, every single person is in the potential role as a helper as an active, critically thinking partner in supporting the team! We all want to be our best, regardless of our roles.

Crisis Leadership

Regardless of it being intentional or not, you are acting as a leader if someone is following or helping you. As soon as you accept someone’s help, it becomes your responsibility to accept your leadership role to allow for a smooth team dynamic. Just acknowledging yourself as a leader is not enough though! Remember, they chose you, so there is something intrinsic about you that made them want to follow.  Leadership is as much about who you are, as it is what you do. Being a great leader involves a multifaceted skill set, which requires time and practice to master. Here are some things to consider in your role that will make you even more effective:

  1. Appear calm – You don’t need to be calm – just look it! In times of high anxiety, people will imitate the emotion you are portraying, and much of that comes from body language.
  2. Be decisive – Be clear with your decisions and why you are making them. To operationalize a decision, others need to buy in. Communicating the “why” is critical because not everyone will like certain decisions, but they will be more likely to follow you (or catch mistakes!) if they trust/understand the message.
  3. Maintain global perspective – There are countless moving parts in high stress team-based environments. Exploring other ways to look at the situation, checking in with your team members, being on the front lines, and connecting with stakeholders are all ways to gain the perspective necessary for informed decisions.
  4. Lead with your actions – Follow the rules/decisions that you set for the team. Your team will experience uncertainty and potentially fear if they perceive a difference between your actions and words.
  5. Take care of yourself – This is a marathon, not a sprint and leaders need to be healthy longterm. Demonstrate balance by focussing on wellness activities for at least 1 hour per day, take 1 day off per week, learn to delegate, and keep connected with your support network. The team needs you sharp and well.
  6. Be humble – When so much is naturally uncertain right now, it is ok to admit what is unknown. Vulnerability can improve leadership and so can asking for help. You are human and so is your team.
  7. Make a replacement plan – The system needs leaders. There may come a time you are redeployed or become unwell and need to step aside from your role. Identify a replacement early so that the team knows who it will be. This is not a “succession plan” but a smart “contingency plan”. Make sure your replacement can step in and lead quickly, not needing much development to get up to speed. This will be helpful even if you need a short break from the role!
  8.  Leaders are also helpers – Many others will be stepping up to lead in this challenging time. Make sure you take the opportunity to help them in the way they need!

Crisis Helpership

Times of crisis can trigger an overwhelming desire to help – especially when we see members of our team drowning in their roles. If being a great leader involves a multifaceted skill set requiring time and practice to master, so too does being a great helper! It is beyond just doing what is asked of you. However, sometimes in our desire to be helpful, we can unintentionally exhaust more “cognitive bandwidth” of those we are trying to assist. To be successful in your helpership role, it is important to recognize how you can best support leaders effectively and efficiently:

  1. Know how to offer help –  Asking an overwhelmed leader how you can help may actually add more stress in a time where they are stretched thin. It is often more helpful to survey the situation and suggest a specific way you can take some of the load. Perhaps consider using a helper elevator pitch: “Thank you so much for your leadership in this time. I see that ____ seems like an issue. I can do ____ for you and I think that will lead to ____ outcome. My hope is that this would make your life easier. If not, I am happy to support you in another way.”
  2. Remember the 3 ways to helpHands: there are lots of things that need to be “done”. Take them and do them. Head: There is so much new and changing information. Thinking/Talking through issues to help guide decisions may be helpful. Make sure you work with your leader, as this may be perceived as challenging them despite your intent. Ask permission. Hugs – Leaders are in crisis mode and need support. Obviously practice social distancing and avoid actual hugs, but offer to give them breaks, ask how they are, listen to them, and be aware of signs of burnout. Support them how they need it.
  3. Perceive and Predict help – Leaders often ask for help and assign tasks in a way they think will be helpful. As a helper, you have another lens, without the spotlight. Look for other ways to be helpful while also doing what is asked.
  4. Practice empathy – Everyone is doing the best they can. Be compassionate and kind and support each other – leaders included! The last thing they need is to deal with the inevitable criticism and fingerpointing that comes with complex challenges and decision-making. Leaders will be better leaders if they believe what they are doing matters! Make sure they hear that message!
  5. Helpers are often leaders – If you are a great helper, others will follow you! Demonstrate what it means to be an amazing helper and you will amplify that message.

This post was edited by Kara Tastad and Anson Dinh. It was edited and reviewed by Patrick Boreskie.

Robert Anderson

Dr. Robert Anderson is the Associate Dean of Postgraduate Education and Health Sciences Programs at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and the was the founding Medical Director of the Health Sciences North Labelle Innovation and Learning Center and the HSN Simulation Lab. He is a Clinician Educator at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada exploring workplace-based assessments in a CBME world. He has led the creation of a number of crisis management and team training simulation programs including the Family Practice Anesthesia Boot Camp. He works clinically as an Anesthesiologist and Intensivist at Health Sciences North in Sudbury Ontario and is a proud husband and father of 2 amazing teens and 3 less amazing (but cute) dogs.