Compassionate leadership guiding response to COVID-19

By Johny Van Aerde and Carol Rochefort

Compassion, teamwork and even allowing the capacity for failure are important guiding principles for many of the physicians leading the response of hospitals and health regions to the COVID-10 pandemic.

Since dealing with the pandemic became a priority in early April, the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders has been producing a series of podcasts – Leading the Way – featuring short interviews with Canadian doctors providing leadership in a variety of settings.


While one would assume the “command and control” style of leadership would be seen as the dominant style favored by these individuals in the response of their hospital or health region to the pandemic in fact the opposite is true.

Many of those interviewed identified leadership in support of others – “servant leadership” – and teamwork as overarching guiding principles.

Typical of this perspective was the approach taken by Dr. Gillian Kernaghan, President and CEO of St. Joseph’s Healthcare in London, ON.

“Although, in a pandemic or any crisis, you tend towards a bit more command and control, you recognize that you need to rely on a lot of people,” she said. She added that hospital CEOs must delegate and trust people and build “a strong team of people that you can work together with, to make sure, that there’s cohesion and consistency in the response across your organization.”

She said leaders within the institution who have taken the time to build strong relationships in their departments are seeing a payoff during the pandemic because of the trust that has developed.

Dr. Verna Yiu, President and CEO of Alberta Health Services referenced compassionate leadership and the need to recognize these are not normal times and provide mutual support.

Even within the political sphere, building consensus rather than command and control has been the driving force in responding to the pandemic, according to Dr. John Haggie, Minister of Health and Community Services in Newfoundland and Labrador. The basis for decisions in dealing with the pandemic “are often more consensus based than people would realize,” he said.

The need for teamwork was also a theme that emerged repeatedly in the interviews.

“I personally believe that leadership is fundamentally about improving the performance of the team that you lead or the team that you’re a part of. And the reality is that healthcare is a team sport,” said Dr. Scott McLeod, Registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. “Every member of that team … has an opportunity to improve the performance of the team. And that may just simply be helping out a colleague or making life easier on the nurses working beside you.”

“Managing team members, thanking team members, making sure that they’re well cared for and that they’re getting their rest and the resources they need to be able to do the job is also fundamental to being able to achieve success,” said Dr. Dave Williams, retired President and CEO of Southlake Regional Health Centre and a former astronaut. Dr. Williams also talked about the need for leaders to have the “emotional awareness and sensitivity” to appreciate the stress all hospital workers are currently under.

Dr. Joshua Tepper, President and CEO of North York General Hospital also talked of the need for leaders to look after their own wellbeing and to not be afraid to make mistakes during these times.

“Leadership is always a hard and taxing role (and) at this time, even more so…Please take the time to selfcare, be gentle on yourself and treat yourself with some kindness. We’re working fast and we’re working hard and we’re working in unprecedented times. And we’re going to make mistakes. You know, maybe there’s leaders out there who haven’t made a mistake in the last six weeks. I’m not one of them. I’ve made plenty in the last few weeks. I think we need to acknowledge them, try to learn from them (and) grow from them.

Dr. Haggie and others interviewed touched on how the healthcare system will change after COVID-19. “I think the idea of having a centre of excellence as a building on a hill is a thing of the past. People will want care in their own front room and if not, then as near to their own front room as possible.”

Dr. Tepper talked maintaining awareness of the need to support the health and wellbeing of providers.

“Let’s be clear, the data was incredibly strong before the pandemic about how much stress healthcare providers were under already. So, it’s not like people were in a great state and then the pandemic came. There was already a high rate of burnout, depression, suicide, and substance use disorder compared to the rest of the population. We have to make sure that the type of focused attention we’ve been paying in the pandemic is really continued afterwards.”

Dr. Johny Van Aerde MD, PhD is the Executive Medical Director and Carol Rochefort CAE, is the Executive Director of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders – www.physicianleader.ca