Leadership Through Unprecedented Uncertainty

Being an early career professional in health and science means moving along a continuum of learning and leading. The moment you clear a hurdle, you’re a mentor for people following you. Remember “see one, do one, teach one”? There’s the learning-leading continuum in action. Every day of our working lives, we are becoming leaders as we continue to learn.

For the past month, give or take, the U.S. has been in the midst of a panicked response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions have been scrambling to respond to rapidly changing conditions with scarce information and mixed messages from government and global bodies. Schools and healthcare organizations, where many of us work, have been particularly impacted. I have felt this stress acutely, as I’m sure many of you have. Will we be caring for affected patients? Will our PPE and medical supplies last? Will our research be put on hold? Will our students be able to graduate? Will we or our loved ones fall ill?

Even as our own anxiety ramps up, we may find ourselves needing our fledgling leadership skills more than ever. The public looks to us as experts. Patients look to us for guidance and comfort. Our students look to us for direction. Staff who work in our facilities look to us for instructions. How can we be there for these folks, even if we don’t feel all there ourselves? Here are some ideas:

  • Be present: find safe ways to be available, whether you’re on the ground, on video chat, sending emails, or anything else you dream up. Let people know they can talk to you and you’re there.
  • Be informed: Stay up to date, find sources of information you trust, and read with intention. This practice can help you be a source of authority and comfort when so much around us is chaotic.
  • Be honest: it’s OK to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know— especially if the next part is “but I promise to do my best.”
  • Be kind: Every person you interact with is facing stress now. Treat them kindly. Ask how they are, and listen to the answer. Allow a little grace where you might otherwise stick to strictly business.
  • Be transparent: If you are working on a plan, say so. If things might change, say so. If you are waiting on a person or a step that can’t be rushed, say so.
  • Be human: you don’t have to be a robot. People can see that you, too, are anxious or uncertain, and that doesn’t undermine your ability to lead. People can see that you have kids, or pets, or a partner, or dirty dishes. Sharing your self can be one of the most powerful ways to connect.

Ultimately, everyone is seeking stability, comfort, and connection. Much of this is beyond our control, but even a little leadership presence goes a long way.

Stay safe, friends, and may you come through these hard times with grace and wisdom.


“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”