'During times of crisis, the job of the leader doesn’t change, but the focus magnifies'

Leadership strategies and approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly varied widely across the globe. Scientific preparedness and emerging technologies of our decade have played a significant role in curtailing transmissions. However, governmental leadership has also been scrutinised for its ability to act rapidly and decisively in the face of crisis. For example, In January, as the UK death toll passed 100,000, labour politician, Keir Starmer accused the prime minister for acting too slow to implement a series of measures during the pandemic.

Conversely, at the start of the pandemic Germany was recognised for showing several elements of success in its preparedness and response frameworks. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who has led the country with an analytic and cautious style, was ranked the highest in a Euronews leaders’ approval poll during the crisis. Serbia has also been praised recently for soaring ahead with its vaccination campaign, with the prime minister, Ana Brnabic having the Pfizer vaccine on 24 December, well before other European leaders. As the pandemic has unfolded, nevermore have nations looked up to their leaders for clarity, transparency and guidance. 

Lessons from previous pandemics

Dr Bandar Al Knawy, chief executive officer of Ministry of National Guard Health Affairs (MNGHA) and President of King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, Saudi Arabia wrote a review entitled Leadership in Times of Crisis. In the report, Dr Al Knawy explained: “When organisations encounter a crisis, the most senior executives are in the spotlight and have the responsibility to lead the organisation to safe grounds. This necessitates mental focus to instil confidence and resilience to staff, customers and external stakeholders.”

Citing the major outbreak the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faced in August 2015 which was caused by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), Dr Al Knawy summarised the leadership learnings to come from the outbreak. In the report, he outlines the successful personality traits, attitudes and styles of individual leaders. He highlights the main points for phase 1 (crisis escalation) as:

  • Take decisive actions and calculated risks.
  • Think creatively and simply in the face of overwhelming detail.
  • Seek outside expertise if necessary.
  • Communicate actions internally and externally.
  • Conveying a clear message and ensuring visible senior leadership during the crisis.

Fast-forward to the pandemic we currently find ourselves in and the same leadership traits are applicable. Jorge Cortell, founder and CEO of Kanteron, Spain and HIMSS Future50 Innovation leader, explained: “In any case, healthcare leaders have to possess a very similar set of traits and qualities than any other kind of leader: accountability, adaptability, communication, competence (not just in leadership, but also in science), confidence, creativity, focus, integrity, motivation, realism, resilience and vision.

Cortell added: “Since healthcare is all about people, about caring, particular attention should be placed in empathy and the ability to build and inspire a team.”

Marie Ennis-O’Connor, patient engagement consultant and HIMSS Future50 patient leader also stressed that clear communication must not be overlooked, describing it as “paramount” and a hallmark of effective leadership.

Ennis-O’Connor continued: “During times of crisis, the job of the leader doesn’t change, but the focus magnifies. The current coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on the central role of healthcare leadership.

“As a leader, this is an unprecedented opportunity to mine personal strengths and to guide and motivate others to activate their latent strengths too. It’s a time to dig deep and find greatness in ourselves and those around us.”

Global health leadership compared

In a report published by the independent think-tank, The King’s Fund, on leadership in healthcare, it was found that the key challenge facing all NHS organisations is to nurture cultures that ensure the delivery of continuously improving, high quality, safe and compassionate health care. It states: “leadership is the most influential factor in shaping organisational culture and so ensuring the necessary leadership behaviours, strategies and qualities are developed is fundamental.”

Reflecting on examples of effective leadership, Cortell admits: “I believe this has not been our finest moment. We ignored our own protocols. It was concerning to see governments in Europe or North America dismissing those ‘poorer countries’ communicable disease experiences and know-how instead of learning from them; or governments in Latin America hiding behind lies and populism instead of having a pragmatic and transparent approach to an unavoidable crisis.”

Mainland South-East Asia, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have reported low infection rates throughout the pandemic. According to the Financial Times, when locals were asked whether the Singapore government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic would influence their vote in July’s general election, they felt the government did a good job in handling the virus compared to other countries.

“What has impressed me has been many organisations and institutions, from some governments in South-East Asia or Africa to teams of scientists from disparate backgrounds, collaborating with a common goal. This highlights the importance of approaching healthcare, and science in general, as a common interest that should not be hindered by market forces or political ambitions,” added Cortell.

Maintaining the momentum post-crisis  

Through grappling with similar health crises historically, leaders are given the opportunity to troubleshoot and refine their learnings with each experience. Taking advantage of the momentum is also critical to ensure future pandemics are contained more efficiently and cohesively. 

Cortell explains: “History shows us how pandemics, economic crises, preventative measures that restrict peoples’ lives. It has all happened before many times. Perhaps the only difference is how quickly information can be shared today, which is significant.

“The role of leadership is to guide, during a crisis or not. It may be under different circumstances, but in the end, it’s all about guiding. And to think that guidance is not important unless there’s a crisis is the surest way to ensure there will be more crises.”

In recognition of the noteworthy digital health leaders across the globe, the HIMSS Future50 Community aims to identify top healthcare IT leaders who have made significant contributions to the sector. The community works with HIMSS and partners to overcome current and future systemic health challenges by addressing gaps and needs at the local and regional levels.

Every year, a new cohort of 50 top international leaders joins the HIMSS global community. Cohorts have a tenure of one year and continue to engage and serve the community as mentors to new members every year. The nomination call for the HIMSS Future50 class of 2021 is now open. 

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