As I write this, we are entering the third surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 skyrocketing around the country. Worst of all, this surge has been most severely affecting areas of the nation least prepared to handle it (rural) and populations already marginalized by the health care system (Latinx and Black). Despite the onslaught of COVID-19, “pandemic fatigue” has begun to set in amongst colleagues, friends, and family, leading to challenges in adhering to social distancing and other infection-control measures, both at work and home.
In the face of the pandemic’s onslaught, hospitalists – who have faced the brunt of caring for patients with COVID-19, despite the absence of reporting about the subspecialty’s role – are faced with mustering the grit to respond with resolve, coordinated action, and empathy. Luckily, hospitalists are equipped with the very characteristics needed to lead teams, groups, and hospitals through the crisis of this pandemic. Ask yourself, why did you become a hospitalist? If you wanted steady predictability and control, there were many office-based specialties you could have chosen. You chose to become a hospitalist because you seek the challenges of clinical variety, problem-solving, systems improvement, and you are a natural team leader, whether you have been designated as such or not. In the words of John Quincy Adams, “if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”
As a leader, how can you lead your team through the series of trials and tribulations that this year has thrown at you? From COVID-19 to racism directed against Black and Latinx people to the behavioral health crisis, 2020 has likely made you feel as if you’re stuck in a ghoulish carnival fun house without an exit.
Yet this is where some leaders hit their stride, in what Bennis and Thomas describe as the “crucible of leadership.”1 There are many types of “crucibles of leadership,” according to Bennis and Thomas, and this year has thrown most of these at us: prejudice/bias, physical fatigue and illness, sudden elevation of responsibility to lead new processes, not to mention family stressors. Leaders who succeed in guiding their colleagues through these challenges have manifested critical skills: engaging others in shared meaning, having a distinctive and compelling voice, displaying integrity, and having adaptive capacity.
What exactly is adaptive capacity, the most important of these, in my opinion? Adaptive capacity requires understanding the new context of a crisis and how it has shifted team members’ needs and perceptions. It also requires what Bennis and Thomas call hardiness and what I call grit – the ability to face adversity, get knocked down, get up, and do it again.
There is probably no better example of a crisis leader with extraordinary adaptive capacity than Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Bitten by the bug of exploration, Shackleton failed at reaching the South Pole (1908-1909) but subsequently attempted to cross the Antarctic, departing South Georgia Island on Dec. 5, 1914. Depressingly for Shackleton, his ship, the Endurance, became stuck in sea ice on Jan. 19, 1915 before even reaching the continent. Drifting with the ice floe, his crew had set up a winter station hoping to be released from the ice later, but the Endurance was crushed by the pressure of sea ice and sank on Nov. 21, 1915. From there, Shackleton hoped to drift north to Paulet Island, 250 miles away, but eventually was forced to take his crew on lifeboats to the nearest land, Elephant Island, 346 miles from where the Endurance sank. He then took five of his men on an open boat, 828-mile journey to South Georgia Island. Encountering hurricane-force winds, the team landed on South Georgia Island 15 days later, only to face a climb of 32 miles over mountainous terrain to reach a whaling station. Shackleton eventually organized his men’s rescue on Elephant Island, reaching them on Aug. 30, 1916, 4½ months after he had set out for South Georgia Island. His entire crew survived, only to have two of them killed later in World War I.
You might consider Shackleton a failure for not even coming close to his original goal, but his success in saving his crew is regarded as the epitome of crisis leadership. As Harvard Business School professor Nancy F. Koehn, PhD, whose case study of Shackleton is one of the most popular at HBS, stated, “He thought he was going to be an entrepreneur of exploration, but he became an entrepreneur of survival.”2 Upon realizing the futility of his original mission, he pivoted immediately to the survival of his crew. “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground,” wrote Shackleton in his diary.3
Realizing that preserving his crew’s morale was critical, he maintained the crew’s everyday activities, despite the prospect of dying on the ice. He realized that he needed to keep up his own courage and confidence as well as that of his crew. Despite his ability to share the strategic focus of getting to safety with his men, he didn’t lose sight of day-to-day needs, such as keeping the crew entertained. When he encountered crew members who seemed problematic to his mission goals, he assigned them to his own tent.
Despite the extreme cold, his decision-making did not freeze – he acted decisively. He took risks when he thought appropriate, twice needing to abandon his efforts to drag a lifeboat full of supplies with his men toward the sea. “You can’t be afraid to make smart mistakes,” says Dr. Koehn. “That’s something we have no training in.”4 Most importantly, Shackleton took ultimate responsibility for his men’s survival, never resting until they had all been rescued. And he modeled a culture of shared responsibility for one another5 – he had once offered his only biscuit of the day on a prior expedition to his fellow explorer Frank Wild.
As winter arrives in 2020 and deepens into 2021, we will all be faced with leading our teams across the ice and to the safety of spring, and hopefully a vaccine. Whether we can get there with our entire crew depends on effective crisis leadership. But we can draw on the lessons provided by Shackleton and other crisis leaders in the past to guide us in the present.
Author disclosure: I studied the HBS case study “Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance” as part of a 12-month certificate course in Safety, Quality, Informatics, and Leadership (SQIL) offered by Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Chang is chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Mass., and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts, also in Springfield.
1.. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.
2. Lagace M. Shackleton: An entrepreneur of survival. Harvard Business School.. Published 2003. Accessed 2020 Nov 19.
3. Koehn N.. The New York Times. 2011 Dec 25.
4. Potier B. Shackleton in business school. Harvard Public Affairs and Communications. The. Published 2004. Accessed 2020 Nov 19.
5. Perkins D.. In Leadership Essentials by HarpersCollins Leadership. Vol 2020. New York: HarpersCollins, 2020.