Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Leadership Lessons When A Crisis Hits Close To Home

Wall Street Journal:  After Covid Took His Father, a Hospital Boss Leans on His Wisdom, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Captain ClassFor many leaders, the Great Pandemic of 2020 has been the mother of all anomalies: a blur of bizarre, impossible and potentially defining decisions, often made in a hurry with no practical frame of reference.

Judging from his 35-page resume, Dr. Slonim, [CEO of Renown Health, a regional hospital network based in Reno,] might seem like the rare exception. Before coming to Renown in 2014, he’d practiced medicine for many years and earned a nursing degree and a doctorate in public health. He’d also taught medicine and written more than 60 peer-reviewed articles. It’s unclear how he could have been more prepared to tackle the pandemic.

Long story short: No amount of training could have prepared him. ...

In late February, after the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., Dr. Slonim began gathering his team to monitor data and make contingency plans. ... In March, with the virus still confined to coastal hot spots, he faced his first difficult decision: whether to spend $11 million to convert a hospital parking garage into an overflow ward with hundreds of beds. ...

To make the call, Dr. Slonim had to dig down to something fundamental: the reason he’d wanted to be a doctor in the first place. As a physician-CEO, he says: “When you know the calculus could be life or death, the financial calculus is really subordinate to that. Human life comes first.”

With construction under way, Dr. Slonim’s next dilemma arrived, and there was nothing hypothetical about it. In a predawn phone call, his 79-year-old father in New Jersey told him he was short of breath. Two days later, he was diagnosed with Covid-19. ... [A]s his father deteriorated, he felt deeply torn between a son’s impulse to jump in the car immediately and drive east, and a leader’s instinct to stay put. His medical training and personal library of leadership books offered little guidance.

Slowly, he settled on the cold truth: Nobody, not even him, could change his father’s outcome now, but there was a great deal he could do to protect the people of Northern Nevada. He remembered something his father used to say: “It’s not what you do for people when they’re dead, it’s what you do when they’re alive.”

The next two weeks tested his resilience. In stolen moments, he’d call the hospital in New Jersey and ask a nurse to hold the receiver to his father’s ear. Dr. Slonim just talked to his dad for long stretches, with no response. On April 14, he was about to unveil Renown’s new Covid-19 ward to the press when he got the call. His father was gone. ...

Come what may, the pandemic has already taught Dr. Slonim one valuable lesson: that a genuine crisis, like this one, is something no leader can specifically prepare for. When professional challenges crash into personal struggles, there’s no safety in theoretical constructs. “You could write the best white paper in the world about what to do in a pandemic until you don’t have any more beds,” he says. “And then what?”

Dr. Slonim’s basic prescription for crisis management this: Remember that you’re not omnipotent. You have biases and blind spots. But you’re also a human being with beliefs and values.

When faced with an implausible situation, he says: “There’s something to be said for authenticity.”

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink