Blog Post

3 ways to foster resilient, adaptive physician leaders

By Serena Bernthal-JonesTaylor Hurst

June 14, 2021

    Despite the resilience leaders demonstrated amid Covid-19, the pandemic has made clear the way we're asking physician leaders to operate is not sustainable—not now, and not in what promises to be an increasingly uncertain and volatile post-pandemic environment. Often, conversations with leaders focus on how they can support frontline staff—but their teams aren't the only ones who need additional support.

    So, how can executives create an environment that fosters resilient, adaptive leaders?

    To answer this question, I sat down (virtually) with Advisory Board's Serena Bernthal-Jones to talk about her team's new research on leadership resilience and adaptability.  Below, I outline her three key takeaways based on conversations with health care leaders around the world—and our take on what her findings mean for physician executives. 

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    1. Current norms and behaviors undermine leaders' resilience and ability to adapt

    The Covid-19 crisis provides an opportunity for executive teams to reflect on how traditional leadership norms and behaviors are no longer serving leaders. Where should you start? First, identify how and when these traditional behaviors and expectations manifest at your organization. 

    For example, leaders have traditionally been expected to put on a brave face in front of their teams and colleagues, as showing vulnerability could be seen as a sign of weakness that undermines their identity as a leader. But as organizations face an increasingly uncertain and volatile environment, they need adaptive leaders who practice and model self-awareness and vulnerability, prioritize taking time away to recharge, and feel empowered to make difficult decisions, prioritize resources, and take calculated risks in service to organizational goals.

    Reflect on: What behaviors exemplify an effective leader at your organization? Has your perspective changed over the last year? If so, how?

    2. Evolving leadership norms and behaviors begins with executive role-modeling

    Identifying current leadership norms and behaviors is the first step. But changing those norms hinges on executives' commitment to evolve their own leadership practices—repeatedly and publicly.

    For example, if we want leaders to practice self-awareness and vulnerability, executives must normalize the behavior. This might look like publicly sharing how you are caring for your personal well-being or championing protected time away from work to recharge. This modeling gives other physician leaders the "permission" to take steps to prioritize their own well-being as well. 

    Reflect on: Is there a time in your career when a leader candidly shared a challenge they were struggling with or a mistake they made? How did you react?

    3. Individual interventions must be paired with an organizational approach that addresses the environment that leaders are operating within

    Across the past year, many organizations looked to additional training to bolster leaders' personal resilience, such as workshops, leadership retreats, mindfulness training, and individual coaching sessions. But there's a problem with these interventions: They primarily treat the symptom of burnout, not the underlying systems that contribute to burnout. Ultimately, these interventions place the onus on the individual leader to become more resilient in the face of adversity.

    If we want leaders to model self-awareness, executives must demonstrate the importance of emotional well-being as an institutional priority, such as by holding space for leaders to connect with peers on adaptive leadership challenges or assessing emotional intelligence as a core leadership competency. This approach shifts emotional well-being from a private, personal endeavor to one that is integrated into the day-to-day work and interactions between leaders.

    Reflect on: Are all the upcoming leadership trainings and meetings on your calendar need-to-have? Is there an instance where it may be more valuable to give the time back to leaders?

    Looking ahead

    Evolving deeply held leadership norms and behaviors is not going to happen overnight. We've shared a starting point to building a resilient, adaptive leadership team, but we acknowledge that gains are made through repetition, time, prioritization, and ongoing conversations. Importantly, these shifts will require commitment and collaboration across the entire clinical and non-clinical leadership team.

    The good news is that many aspirational leadership norms and behaviors likely exist in your organization today. As you consider where to go from here, start by reflecting on where your leaders practice and model well-being—and how making those behaviors the norm could transform your organization.

    Help shape our research

    surveyHealth care organizations worldwide are currently navigating how to boost workforce recovery and pivot to meet new operational needs. Health care leaders will play a vital role in this shift, provided they themselves are equipped for personal recovery and with the skills needed to operate in an uncertain health care landscape.

    Our Health Care Leader Well-being Survey will inform our research agenda so that we can provide you with the resources you need to support yourself and your fellow leaders during these uncertain times—and it only takes 3-5 minutes to fill out! We appreciate your time and insights.

    Complete our survey now
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