How a Hospital’s Leadership Development Is on the Frontlines of the Pandemic 

Agility. Resilience. Networking across silos. Dealing with complexity and rapid change. 

While these skills are important in all areas of work, they’re often missing in the toolbox of physicians working in academic centers. No matter how great their knowledge and professional attainment, such skills gaps become only more apparent as health care becomes more and more complex. Yet at the same time, these skills are increasingly critical to retention of key personnel, team function, career advancement, and most importantly, patient outcomes. 

All of which is why we chose to focus on these vital skills when we launched the Mount Sinai Kravis LEAD (Learn, Engage, Achieve, Deliver) program in February.

Little did we know then just how soon leaders would be applying what they’d be learning.

The leadership-development program, which we created in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, targeted mid-level participants, primarily faculty members, and key administrative leaders between three and 15 years into their career in the Jack and Lucy Clark Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital. 

Enrollment was open to the entire faculty — on the premise that self-selected participants would be more open to learning and adopting new ways of acting and thinking. We also believed they’d be more likely to commit to participation and that over a longer horizon they would serve as change agents. Additionally, we moved to a fully virtual program to help relieve the time pressures of participants and offer them the learning flexibility they required. 

The week after our first session, Mount Sinai Hospital found itself at ground zero of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, putting the need for leadership at the forefront. 

While physicians are used to dealing with stress and complexity, being at the epicenter of a pandemic about which little was known was like navigating uncharted waters. Things were changing so rapidly that it sometimes seemed that what we knew in the morning had changed by the afternoon. Once we eventually began to have a handle on our pandemic work, a new problem emerged as children who were diagnosed with COVID-19 started experiencing complications. 

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In that moment, it was clear that physicians on the frontlines needed to be able to adapt on the fly. Those who were taking part in our leadership program found themselves well-equipped to do so and were able to readily apply what they were learning about agility, resiliency, adaptability, and teamwork in real time. 

In other words, the very skills that we chose to be at the center of the leadership development program were exactly the ones leaders needed to function optimally at the center of the pandemic. 

This learning became especially relevant for one of this article’s authors, Scarlett McKinsey, an attending neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) neonatologist and a participant in the development program. During the pandemic, Scarlett stepped out of her comfort zone in the NICU and volunteered to work in the ICU with COVID-19 patients.

Within a week, Scarlett had to apply her learnings on leading and teaming in a time of crisis to help critically ill patients whose disease we knew little about. Through the LEAD program, she was able to more easily identify where she could best help out the team and balance such efforts with what everyone else on the team was bringing. 

The COVID surge helped to uncover disparity, accelerate collaboration and learning, identify the challenges of remote work, and open new applications of the virtual world to health care. Now, as we shift to a new normal, we continue to tap into the LEAD program and the value of ongoing learning. Though often overlooked as a priority, leadership development is crucial to the future of healthcare. By always seeking to learn more, we are able to develop the traits and skills that help us respond to crises and make us better overall physicians.

John Bucuvalas is professor and vice chair of faculty affairs and chief of hepatology in the Department of Pediatrics at Kravis Children’s Hospital and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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