Leading in Uncertainty

Our posts over the next few weeks will cover a challenging area for many of the leaders we work with: leading in uncertainty as businesses look to return to normalcy following the COVID-19 pandemic. How we work, where we work, how we meet, and how we measure results have all have been tested in the past several years. We will share stories from leaders who grew during this period and suggest ways you can become better at leading in uncertainty.

Successfully Leading in Uncertainty

I recently met Dr. Eric Dickson MD and heard his story of successfully navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dickson is the President and CEO of the UMass Memorial Health and is still (occasionally) a practicing Emergency Department physician. He shared his lessons in leading the hospital system through where we are today – hopefully through the worst of the global pandemic.

Dickson believed that dealing with the COVID pandemic was made easier for himself and his leadership team by dealing with a financial crisis at the hospital system when he began his role in 2013. Dr. Dickson took over at a time when the hospital system was losing money, nurses were striking, both patients and provider satisfaction was low, and his own leadership team was abandoning the ship.

Dr. Dickson approached his new position by adopting core principles of Lean leadership:

  • Respect and engage everyone, every day
  • Define and share the vision
  • Develop people as problem solvers
  • Understand your current state with a focus on your desired future state
  • Develop management processes

Here is Dickson’s slide showing the situation he took over at UMass Memorial:

Dickson: Leading in Uncertainty

Lessons for Leading in Uncertainty

Dickson was able to build his team and lead a turnaround at UMass memorial. He learned valuable lessons leading the hospital system through this initial crisis:

  1. Reset to focus on short term objectives – wins
  2. Manage by those objectives
  3. Lead more like a “kind Caesar” than as a Senate (allow leaders to make quick decisions)
  4. Use the crisis as an opportunity to develop your people

All of these lessons would be valuable seven years later as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the world.

Eric Dickson, MD

UMass Memorial and other organizations suddenly found themselves dealing with a nationwide shutdown, not enough personal protective equipment (PPE), a stopped supply chain, civil and racial unrest, and a US political divide. Dickson and his team knew what to do – they went back to the playbook that worked in 2013 and focused first on short-term emergency objectives. Dickson led by example as he personally worked on the front lines and was the first to volunteer to take the new vaccine and then administer the vaccine with all of the added risks of infection yourself.

His team also used their honed problem-solving skills to deal with PPE and ventilator shortages, rapidly build a field hospital, and rethink their mental health facility. Dickson and his team have practiced the Lean principles of Respect for People and Continuous Improvement throughout the COVID crisis. This article (from Becker’s Hospital Review) shares how sticking to core principles has benefitted the corporate culture.

Becker Hospital Review

New Lessons for Leading in Uncertainty

As UMass Memorial emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Dickson has added five additional lessons for managing in a crisis or leading in uncertainty:

  1. Reset to focus on short term objectives – wins
  2. Manage by those objectives
  3. Lead more like a “kind Caesar” than as a Senate
  4. Use the crisis as an opportunity to develop your people
  5. Make sure you people feel safe
  6. Stand by and with your people
  7. Use the crisis to reinforce your culture
  8. Use the media to your advantage
  9. Celebrate your successes

Dr. Dickson didn’t say it directly, but I see many examples in his story of the benefits of leading by example. I think he shows this in his quote below:

“Stand by your people and your people will stand by you.”

Dr. Eric Dickson

I enjoyed hearing Dr. Dickson’s lessons of leading in uncertainty and hope you also found a few lessons you can incorporate into your team leadership.

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