Episode 70:
Attributes of a Leader in a Crisis
Dennis Pullin, Redonda Miller, Steve Corwin, Peter Fine, and Russ Cox
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In this special holiday episode of Fireside Chat, we’ve asked five CEOs, all of whom have appeared previously on this show, to share with us what they believe to be the most important attributes of a leader during a crisis.

Across these conversations, there was a clear consensus that over-weighting communication, embracing the organization’s culture, sharing the truth, being visible, and conveying a positive attitude were essential attributes of crisis leadership.

Joining us on the show were Dennis Pullin, President and CEO at Virtua Health; Redonda Miller, M.D., President, The Johns Hopkins Hospital; Steve Corwin, M.D., President and CEO, NewYork-Presbyterian; Peter Fine, President and CEO, Banner Health; and Russ Cox, CEO of Norton Healthcare.


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Gary Bisbee 0:03
Leadership is hard enough on a regular day, even harder amid a global pandemic. This past year I had the opportunity to interview more than sixty health system, corporate, health insurance CEOs and government leaders, many in the heat of the COVID crisis. They all had clear leadership strategies that they believe best fit the circumstances of their organizations and their own capabilities. I’m Gary Bisbee and this is Fireside Chat. In this special holiday episode, we’ve asked five CEOs, all of whom have appeared previously on this show, to share with us what they believe to be the most important attributes of a leader during a crisis. Across these conversations there was clear consensus that overweighting communication, embracing the organization’s culture, sharing the truth, being visible, and conveying a positive attitude were essential attributes of crisis leadership. Now on to our guests. We’ll hear first from Dennis Pullin, president, and CEO, Virtua Health.

Dennis Pullin 1:07
First and foremost, the ability to listen. I’m a firm believer, if you listen well enough people will tell you what you need to know. And I think, oftentimes, we may not have the answers, but it’s okay also to admit and acknowledge that after you’ve heard what the community is saying after you’ve heard what your employees and your colleagues are saying. Be a good listener; be present. Demonstrate that you understand that you are there. Any good leader needs to be someone who is an authentic and effective communicator. Have a solid message that you want to communicate to folks and make sure that message is digestible, you’re communicating it in a way that people feel that they have confidence in what you’re saying, even if they don’t like what you’re saying.

Gary Bisbee 2:03
Dr. Redonda Miller is president, The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Redonda Miller 2:07
I think some of the most important characteristics are, number one, being able to pull groups of experts together, and then trusting those experts to manage. This notion that we’re all in this together and having the right people around the table because no one has complete mastery of a pandemic like this. No one does. So it really was this getting the team together and building our plans in unison. And then I think you have to be the person who is positive. And explaining that, yes, we can do this. Yes, we’re going to make decisions that we will have to rethink and maybe pivot in a different direction. And that’s okay. But we will get through this. So the leader has to have some element of positivity.

Gary Bisbee 2:57
Dr. Steve Corwin is president and CEO, New York Presbyterian.

Steve Corwin 3:01
Our people pulled us through this. So I think that the reality is that the culture of the institution really is what shows. So I think that building the culture of the institution, building the values of the institution, makes the institution resilient, as resilient as one can be, in the face of this crisis. I think in the absence of having that core set of values and culture and culture of respect and teamwork and diversity, I think it couldn’t have happened. So I think the groundwork around culture, which relates to these issues around, we have to have real conversations around racism, anti-racism, and we have to address unconscious bias. We have to have those discussions in order to have a culture that’s resilient and respectful. And then I think, my personal belief on this is, you’ve got to tell people the truth. You can’t sugarcoat it. You’ve got to tell them what the problems are. I think people see it anyway and I think people will see through false statements or misleading statements or overly optimistic statements. And you’ve got to communicate, communicate, communicate, communicate.

Gary Bisbee 4:11
Peter Fine is president and CEO, Banner Health.

Peter Fine 4:15
I believe one of the most important, and it depends upon the crisis and how you do it, is a statement that I use quite often, “Visibility breeds credibility, credibility breeds trust. If you want to be trusted, you’d better be visible.” Now, visibility comes in all different shapes and forms. You can go roam around a hospital. You can put videos out like I’ve been doing first, every other week, and now every month. My last video to our own employees, 36,000 employees opened it and viewed it, and then another 7,000 viewed it a second time. So communication is the key. It almost doesn’t matter if you’re walking through an ICU or you’re communicating like I’ve been communicating, it’s about massive amounts of communication in a manner that is trustworthy. Second, you have to have, in a crisis, a passion for complexity and a high tolerance for ambiguity. You’ve got to have those two traits if you’re going to manage a crisis well. I know in our organization, we see healthcare just generally complicated and ambiguous to begin with. And so if you’ve built a culture in your organization where your leadership has a passion for complex decision making and is comfortable with ambiguity, then as you roll into a crisis, you’ve already got some of those basic tenants that are important for managing your way through a crisis. So how you’ve built that culture really determines on how you work your way through a crisis that may exist and may be put upon you.

Gary Bisbee 6:01
Russ Cox is the president and CEO, Norton Healthcare.

Russ Cox 6:05
I think it’s number one, two, and three, a good communicator. And a communicator that’s willing to share everything that they know and everything that they think is important for people to know, and be willing to do it in a way that is very palms up, very transparent, and that creates a sense of stability and calm. I think the mistake that a lot of leaders make during this time is to get so buried in the details of execution on operations around things that they forget that just communicating that we’re going to be fine, we are going to get through this, and that we do have a plan, and that we’re going to tell you about that every day. And be willing to say to people, it’s going to change because the situation is going to change and just watch us every day. What I found during this time is you cannot communicate too much. And you need to be out there regularly. They need to be able to see your face and not just read an email. They need to be able to see the emotion that you feel. They need to understand that you’re very much into this and that you’re very much about making certain that they’re safe, that they have the tools they need to do their job, and that they can take care of patients. I’ve become a big believer in that anything and everything that you can do to communicate is very important. And I haven’t, it hasn’t been lost on me that you’re not just communicating with your employees, you’re communicating with their families. And the more information they’re able to share with their families, the more secure their families feel about that person coming to work and putting themselves in harm’s way every day.

Gary Bisbee 7:46
Fireside Chat with Gary Bisbee is a Health Management Academy podcast produced by Think Medium. Please subscribe to Fireside Chat on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now. Be sure to rate and review Fireside Chat so we can continue to explore key issues with innovative and dynamic healthcare leaders. In addition to subscribing and rating, we’ve found that podcasts are known through word of mouth and we appreciate your spreading the word to friends or those who might be interested. Fireside Chat is brought to you from our nation’s capital in Washington, DC where we explore the strategies of leading health systems through conversations with CEOs and other interesting leaders. For questions and suggestions about Fireside Chat contact me through our website firesidechatpodcast.com or gary@thinkmedium.com. Thanks for listening.