April 21, 2021

Dr. Shereef Elnahal: How to be a Leader During Times of Crisis

Sam Caucci

Now that more than half of all American adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, workplaces are getting ready to reopen and return to a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.

But that doesn’t mean we can go back to “the way things were.” 

Disruptions will continue to challenge our workforce and the people who are leading it. So workforce leaders across every industry will need to know how to be an effective leader during times of crisis, disruption, and change if they’re going to be able to lead successful teams and organizations through the future of work. 

If you want to know how to be a great leader who can connect, inspire, and motivate people during times of crisis, there’s no better person to learn the ropes from than Dr. Shereef Elnahal.

Dr. Elnahal is the president and CEO of University Hospital right here in Newark, New Jersey. He has been leading New Jersey’s only publicly-owned hospital during the pandemic, which has given him a unique perspective on how to conduct yourself as a leader during times of crisis while successfully adapting and working through all the challenges our frontline workers and healthcare professionals have had to overcome during COVID-19. 

Before he became the CEO of University Hospital, Dr. Elnahal served as New Jersey’s 21st Commissioner of Health in the administration of Governor Phil Murphy, and he was appointed by President Barack Obama as a White House Fellow to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Elnahal also holds a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard Medical School. 

If there’s anyone who has a road map on leadership during times of crisis and disruption, it’s Dr. Elnahal. So here are Dr. Elnahal’s five critical leadership tips for leaders who want to motivate, inspire, and lift up their people no matter what disruptions the future of work has in store:

1. “The best way to conduct yourself as a leader is to continuously learn, adapt, change, and approach your job in a time of crisis with humility.”

The staff at University Hospital are used to dealing with high-stress situations and challenges. After all, they’re healthcare workers treating patients in the only publicly-owned hospital in New Jersey.

However, the scope of the pandemic was unlike anything the hospital staff had ever experienced.

As Dr. Elnahal pointed out in his episode of 1Huddle’s  Bring It In podcast, the concept of a pandemic “was very much conceptual” before COVID-19. No American healthcare professional who is alive today had ever experienced treating patients during a pandemic, since the last large-scale pandemic in America happened more than a century ago in 1918.

There was no roadmap for how to lead, take action, or work during a pandemic. The hospital’s leadership didn’t have protocols and plans ready. Simply put: at an institutional level, no one was prepared for COVID-19. So rather than following a roadmap, Dr. Elnahal had to create his own. 

Dr. Elnahal said that “it’s been a century since this has happened, so anybody who claims to have the right answer at any given juncture is either misleading or not understanding the moment they’re in. To make mistakes is part of the process of never having gone through something before.”

Even though Dr. Elnahal didn’t always have the right answers, he kept his staff connected and trusting in one another by admitting when he didn’t know something, and continuing to learn and adapt to all the different challenges the pandemic presented. 

Above all, remaining humble and admitting both to your team and to yourself what you don’t know is one way Dr. Elnahal served as an honest and effective leader who was able to guide his staff through the pandemic over the past year. 

2. “The best thing we could do as leaders was to be present and make sure that our communication was swift and strong.”

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? When your staff is scared and working conditions are unpredictable?

You communicate.

You communicate openly, honestly, clearly, and as frequently as you can. Dr. Elnahal talks about the importance of communicating at “levels that you’ve never had to use before” when dealing with a crisis situation.

For him, that meant starting a weekly town hall meeting where members of the hospital staff and community could ask questions “even if the question was very much one that caught us off guard or highlighted a vulnerability in terms of our response,” Dr. Elnahal said.

Dr. Elnahal worked hard to create an environment where people felt comfortable expressing their worries, opinions, and concerns, so that he and other members of hospital leadership would be able to address the problems hospital staff were having. Being a true leader means you have to facilitate reliable communication on a regular basis that will bring people together and make it clear that leadership is prioritizing the needs of their staff and patients. 

This principle is important for every workforce leader — whether you’re managing a small team that’s working remotely or leading hundreds of workers on the front lines. Remaining present and fostering fast and effective lines of communication is essential for leaders who want to keep their team connected and create a culture of trust and reliability. 

3. “We were soliciting feedback every step of the way. When we found that something wasn’t working, we were humble and insightful enough to change it rapidly and try something new.”

Great leaders aren’t scared of feedback — they welcome it. 

Being open to feedback also means taking substantive action to fix things that aren’t working and continuously communicating with your team while doing so. 

Dr. Elnahal describes this aspect of leadership as a “combination of approaching your job as a leader with humility, but also taking quick action to fix things. I’m proud to say that we were staying ahead of updates and making sure people were informed.”

By creating open channels of communication where every member of your organization feels like they can honestly open up about what needs improving, leaders can create a successful organization from the ground up where employees are actually excited and engaged at work. 

Having humility as a leader also means not being afraid to admit when something isn’t working, and trying to fix it rather than ignore or overlook the problem — even if it means admitting you made a mistake.

4. “Making relationships with community leaders when times are good is the hallmark of leadership responsibility.”

When I sat down with Dr. Elnahal, one of his most impactful points on leadership was about community. 

“What this crisis has shown is that you really live or die by those relationships with community leaders,” Dr. Elnahal said.

During his first year serving as the President of University Hospital, Dr. Elnahal prioritized building trust and relationships with fellow city leaders. First, he met with the mayor of Newark to make sure that the mayor’s office and the hospital had an aligned vision on what the hospital needed to prioritize. After that, Dr. Elnahal continued meeting with trusted city leaders: from senators and members of Congress to leaders in the spiritual community and education sector. 

“We’re invested in those relationships, and as a result, we were able to spread the messages we needed to during the worst of this crisis about staying home, being responsible, wearing masks, and heading all the public health advice that we needed to,” Dr. Elnahal said.

As a leader, it’s important to build community connections right away. Build them when times are good, so that when times are bad you already have an existing, trusted relationship with fellow leaders in your community. That way, you can work together to solve major challenges that affect people throughout your community.

If Dr. Elnahal had waited to form a relationship with these leaders until COVID was already underway, they couldn’t have been able to work together to create and roll out an effective plan to help the people of Newark through the pandemic. By being proactive about connecting with other leaders, both inside and outside of your industry, you can prepare your workforce for any future disruptions and crises. 

5. “Leadership can’t hide in a time of crisis. If leadership is hiding, they’re not doing the job.”

Why do we need leaders?

If you ask Dr. Elnahal, he’ll say that “people look to the leader for guidance, for comfort, and for a sense of competence.” This is alway true, but it’s especially heightened during a crisis.

After the pandemic’s first wave, Dr. Elnahal said that some staff members dealt with PTSD and fears of a second wave or surge in the virus. As a leader, it’s natural to want to reassure people. No leader wants their team to be scared and anxious. But when crises happen, being honest is the most important thing.

Rather than telling his staff that a second wave probably wouldn’t be as severe, Dr. Elnahal was honest and transparent with his team. Rather than telling people not to be scared, he encouraged his staff to reach out for help when they were scared and he substantiated their feelings rather than pushing them away.

“We’ve been very upfront about encouraging people to reach out for help, because if people are not addressing those issues upfront that is putting themselves at risk and it’s putting the organization at risk,” Dr. Elnahal said. 

“I had to be here, I had to be present, and I had to be in front of issues, even when I didn’t know the answer.” 

6. BONUS: Dr. Elnahal’s 6th leadership tip is…

If you want to unlock Dr. Elnahal’s sixth tip for being a great leader during disruption, you’re going to have to earn it by answering a question from the 1Huddle game The Gift of Failure.

This game was based on Jessica Lahey’s New York Times bestselling book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Lahey’s book helps parents learn how to raise independent children that grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults. Even though the book is focused on parenting, its lessons on leadership and teaching responsibility are important for every workforce leader to know. Plus, we have to learn to be resilient, independent adults before we can raise resilient, independent children.

So here’s your question:

Atychiphobia is when we allow __________ to stop us from doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.

  1. Mindset
  2. Fear
  3. Overparenting 
  4. Self-doubt

Think you know the answer? Email your responses to devin@1huddle.co, and if you get it right we will send you Dr. Elnahal’s sixth leadership takeaway plus exclusive VIP access to 1Huddle’s Gift of Failure game.

Sam Caucci, Founder & CEO at 1Huddle

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