Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.
Today we talk with Dr. Omar Lateef, CEO of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago about the coronavirus and its effect on healthcare leadership. During his time at Rush, Lateef has served as chief medical officer, and is a former associate dean of medical sciences at Rush University. He has published extensively on scientific and ethical issues in critical care medicine and spoken internationally on improving health care and its delivery. He is currently a professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine and is a member of the American College of Chest Physicians, the American Thoracic Society, and the Society of Critical Care Medicine, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians.
David and David: What was your Brody Moment in terms of realizing the impact the coronavirus was about to have on your day-to-day life and work? What immediate actions did you take?
Dr. Lateef: Chicago had the advantage of following the rest of the world. I watched the news on television about the coronavirus in China, and then in Italy. I watched Italian critical care doctors pleading for resources, wondered what was going on, and tried to rationalize whether Chicago was different. At first, there were conflicting messages about whether this would affect our country in the same way, but watching Italy certainly made me concerned. A few days later, news started coming out of Seattle, home to the University of Washington, which has some of the most advanced critical care and infectious disease teams in the world. When the healthcare leaders of Seattle started sharing their experiences, there was no doubt this was here and would have an impact.
That was my Brody Moment; that was when I realized this could hit anybody and it would be foolish to wait. And because Seattle got control of the situation, we learned from what they did. We have a lot of ways to communicate, multiple forums to learn from one another. The messages from Seattle were clear, start a command center, reorganize teams, and establish clarity on roles and who is in charge. We emptied out operating rooms and aggressively bought more equipment. Many people thought I was overreacting and that this was much ado about nothing, but then New York happened.
David and David: How has your role as a leader changed?
Dr. Lateef: As a CEO, your job is to get people organized and moving forward as a team, and that’s very difficult to do when there’s something new to the world. There is no playbook for a pandemic.
For my staff, the coronavirus presents a fear I haven’t seen before. I have found that the most important thing is to listen to those fears, to acknowledge them, and to encourage resolve by being present; by wearing the same mask. I emphasized learning in this unique situation. I emphasized transparency – we’re together, we’re learning, we’re constantly changing.
We spent a lot of time with education around Covid-19, convincing people we’re following science and I made myself available to those with questions. Rush thrives on culture and relationships. I felt I needed to be around and to be present so people believed it was safe. I started to walk the hospital, join the teams everywhere at every shift. I wanted to be present and help personally as much as I could. That way, people knew their leadership was in it with them. This wasn’t just me; our entire leadership team did the same thing. This is important, as our expectation as leaders was to be engaged and present. More than ever before, I felt it critical we were on the wards, in the hallways and in the ER, even for a few moments passing out food or just saying hello. It wasn’t the food that made people feel better; it was showing we are in this together.
David and David: With respect to a “new normal” after the crisis is over, what Brody Moments do you see ahead?
Dr. Lateef: I think the post-Covid-19 world is the next Brody Moment. We don’t yet know what the new normal will look like. This is going to change our society and healthcare. The next phase is going to require a whole different level of open-mindedness. Leaders will have to be agile, honest, and transparent. Flexibility will be essential, and that’s not currently an inherent strength of the healthcare system. We will have to react to things as they unfold because we simply don’t know what the new world’s rules are going to be. We know it’s going to be hard for people to shake hands and to sit in cubes next to each other. Work from home will take on a whole new meaning. We can guess about post-Covid-19, but we’re not there yet.
When it comes to the American healthcare system, we’re going to have to look at it long and hard and ask if it stood up to this crisis. History will reflect back on what this industry could have done differently to better manage this disease. I am hoping we can use this pandemic’s effect on healthcare in America as the push to make the changes that allow us to care for more people at a lower cost. There is tremendous ingenuity in this nation and we need to create new, innovative healthcare delivery systems.
David and David: Do you think there will be a new normal in terms of innovation and the speed of decision making?
Dr. Lateef: During the crisis, we are rapidly making decisions. Pre-Covid-19, we often worked hard to get 100% consensus around an issue prior to making changes. This often took a great deal of time. To respond to Covid-19 and ensure safety in the organization, we didn’t have the time to build uniform consensus. We have done things few places have done before—built a forward triage area creating a safe Covid-19 diagnostic physical area, built a new ICU where there wasn’t one, increased capacity across the general floors—effectively making changes in three weeks that we would normally do over two or three years.
During this time, it hasn’t been possible to get everyone’s high five before an important decision because we had to move much faster than before. That left holes and opportunities for improvement after changes—it was important not to be defensive and willing to evolve every day and listen to people to make things better. As long as you’re transparent and educating people about the reasons for the change, you don’t have to be perfect. We will use these learnings to change how leadership works and to be far more efficient going forward.
David and David: Do you have any other advice you can offer? Parting words?
Dr. Lateef: We’re right in the middle of this, making the best decisions we can. History will look back at each healthcare system and judge those decisions. Maybe the best decision is to furlough people and to say no to patient transfers to protect the financial standings of the “business.” To us, it doesn’t feel right, and thankfully, our team has not had to go in that direction. I always tell my team that your values have to be your true north: protecting your people, your patients, your community, your city, and your state. I am trusting that following that path will help our institution in the long run.
As an organization, you have to do what’s right, stay true to your values, and trust that the community we serve will have our back. You may lose more money by taking 100 transfers and saving those lives, but I don’t know how you can say no. I’m banking on there being some sort of justice in the world.
Original article posted on Forbes on June 4, 2020
Subscribe for all our latest Forbes articles, whitepapers, and more.