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.”


How to Get in the Room Where it Happens: A Conversation with Don Lloyd-Jones About Becoming An Influencer

We’ve all had those moments – where someone we work with, someone in a position to make decisions – big decisions, not the marginal ones – makes THE wrong decision. A new department is created with no resources undermining its long-term viability, or an entire program is eliminated for short-term cost savings. No, I’m not talking about corporations or government. I’m talking about hospitals, clinics, and universities – the places early career clinician scientists hope to work after completing what seems like endless training. Poor leadership is endemic and early career scientists are likely to confront the question, “How to I position myself to influence the issues I’m passionate about?”

To understand this issue, I spoke with Don Lloyd-Jones of Northwestern University. For the past 15 years, Dr. Lloyd-Jones has served in leadership positions on numerous American Heart Association committees including the Statistics Committee, Council on Epidemiology and Prevention (EPI), and co-Chaired the Writing Group for 2013 ACC/AHA Guidelines on the Assessment of Cardiovascular Risk. Given his background of service, it was not surprising that he enthusiastically recommended that all early career clinician scientists become involved with a professional association whose mission resonates with them.  However, it’s important to be strategic about developing your leadership experiences and he offered the following tips.

Tip #1: Be Bold, Work Hard, and if Necessary, Open Your Own Doors

Like other leaders, Don Lloyd-Jones’ mentors introduced him to professional organizations. They advocated he work on the Statistics Committee of the EPI Council, where he helped write the annual Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update.  This was hard work, often completed during off-hours but in a timely fashion, and through it Lloyd-Jones established a reputation as a dependable team player. In 2008, as he chaired the stats committee, the AHA was thinking about the strategic impact it wanted to have on cardiovascular health over the next several decades. Described as a “moment of serendipity,” Lloyd-Jones was asked to chair what would become The American Heart Association’s Strategic Impact Goal Through 2020 and Beyond. For him, this was a “career-defining experience where we helped to pivot the AHA from preventing death to promoting cardiovascular health.”

While having a mentor connect you to committees and networks is an efficient way to get involved, it is not the only way to get in the room. For AHA and other professional organizations, introducing yourself to the committee’s Chair, Vice-Chair, Past-Chair and the nominating committee can get you on their radar. Then follow up with an email letting them know that you would love to work on their committee, asking how you can get more involved. When a door opens, even if it’s not exactly the one you wanted, “show up, do the work, share what drives you, create a reputation as a contributing team member, and in doing so you will have almost limitless opportunities to meaningfully effect change.”

Tip #2: Find Your Niche First

While every early career professional should plan to become involved with professional organizations, it is important to first establish a clinical niche or stabilize a successful lab before assuming a leadership position. Once that is accomplished, plan to quickly engage with professional societies because at that time, you have developed a substantive understanding of your field and will bring a voice to the table that will be respected, valued, and sought after. This inflection point often occurs mid-way to the end of one’s Career Development Award and should be planned for and strategically pursued.

Tip #3: Know What You Want

Reflecting on yourself – your goals, capabilities, and weaknesses – is a common theme in leadership books. A critical look at what you want from a leadership experience will help you select the right one and maximize its benefits. In the short-term, if you want highly-cited publications, working with the stats committee might be a great fit. Or if you have a long-term vision of assuming national leadership roles, you may want to try out different committees to see which one aligns with your preferred areas of strategic influence. However, all true leadership engagement, whether at a regional or national level, will lead to a meaningful and expanded professional network. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones stated, “Serving allows you to make connections in robust ways. These new connections can be called upon for letters of support for promotions and tenure or for grant applications. And the personal connections developed through engagement will matter far more than the name of the person who is writing because they bring a lot more color to the applicant.” And over time these professional colleagues can become friends. He shared, “The friendships that you make in AHA, perhaps due to its altruistic nature, are quite unique. AHA draws remarkable people who share a vision to promote health and many become lifelong friends. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”

Tip #4: Be Open to Change

While many people pursue leadership experiences because they want to change the outcome, oftentimes we are changed by the process of leading with others. Yes, we will have bigger networks, busier travel schedules, and fewer free hours but all of this also changes us — our empathy, perspective, time-management skills, and our ability to adapt to new and ever-changing contexts. For Lloyd-Jones, his two years working on the 2020 strategic impact goals, “Substantially changed the focus of my research, what I talk about, what my whole department is focused on, which is increasingly on children and helping them get a healthier start in life. It’s been a wonderful gift.“

In their review article, Warren and Carnell describe the non-technical skills needed for health care leadership including “creating and communicating a vision, setting clear direction, service redesign and healthcare improvement, effective negotiation, awareness of both self and others, working collaboratively and networking.” No one is born knowing how to create and clearly communicate an inspiring long-term vision for change and collaborating to turn that vision into reality. It takes time, practice, failure, courage, and continued investment. Should you choose to pursue your own leadership path, I hope the time, work, and energy you spend developing influence will be among the most fulfilling investments in your career.

Or as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote:

“….When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Oh, you get love for it, you get hate for it
You get nothing if you
Wait for it.”


Learning to Lead in New Ways

Last November, I attended Career Advancement and Leadership Skills for Women in Healthcare, an illuminating conference that changed my approaches to my personal and professional development.

Led by Drs. Julie Silver and Saurabha Bhatnagar, this Harvard Medical School women’s leadership course delivers evidence-based strategies, skills development, and education to help women across health professions assume and succeed in leadership positions. Executive leaders from my institution have written about the critical need for health systems to support emerging physician leaders and to nurture them at each stage of professional advancement. Considering these organizational priorities, I thought that this course would effectively combine education with skills development in a unique environment and would provide strategic and cultural alignment with my own interests in leadership.

The course itself spanned two and a half days with a mix of daily morning plenary sessions, afternoon small group breakout sessions, and evening networking opportunities. From the outset, the tone of the conference was unlike that of any I had previously attended. There was a sense of genuine camaraderie in the rooms, despite the huge number of attendees largely from different clinical, research, and administrative backgrounds. Interpersonal interactions were built on a mutual understanding of the obstacles of underrepresentation and inequity. I noticed how openly women discussed successes and failures, asked questions, and negotiated when surrounded by a supportive group with shared experiences. As one of the few trainees in attendance, I felt especially empowered through hearing about the career trajectories of these successful women leaders.

The first day of the conference focused on identifying your mission and vision, recognizing your leadership potential and style, and learning strategic planning. Here are five of my top takeaways from day 1:

5 takeaways from day 1

The second day focused on refining your oral and written communication skills. Here are five of my top takeaways from day 2:

key takeaways from day 2

In the last session of the conference, Dr. Silver delivered an impassioned call to action for us to take our newly developed skills back to our institutions to share with others and to advance our own careers. After I returned home, I created my own customized plan for career development using the course principles. I also led an abbreviated career advancement and leadership skills workshop for my institution’s Women in Cardiology group, sharing the highlights of what I had learned with my resident, fellow, and faculty colleagues.

For more content from the conference, check out the #SheLeadsHealthcare hashtag on Twitter and this year’s conference project, the #BeEthical campaign.

This year’s course is scheduled for November 14-16, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. If you work in health care and are interested in developing your leadership skills, I strongly recommend investing in your personal and professional development through a course like this or another similar experience.