Leading the way after swimming the seas

Author and retired US Navy Captain Mark Brouker divulges leadership strategies that assist you in becoming better leaders.

Published 3 years ago on Mar 16, 2021 5 minutes Read

Leadership is never more important than in times of crisis, whether minor or not-so-minor. Every organization at some time will face a crisis. They come in all sizes and often are completely unexpected. The only known is that they will come. What should a leader do to prepare for this inevitability?

Of course, it’s essential that leaders proactively create contingency plans for the next crisis by identifying vulnerable areas, analyzing the organization’s state of readiness simulations, and updating/creating a crisis response plan. However, there is a famous military maxim that says, “Every plan is a good one – until the first shot is fired.” In large part, organizations will either weather the storm well or not based on what leaders do before the first shots are fired...

A few months prior to the publication of this book, I had two very different experiences that helped me better understand the profound importance of proactively building trust. One experience had to do with the coronavirus crisis. In early March 2020, I visited the frontline health-care providers at Evergreen Health Medical Center in Seattle, Washington.  At that time, they were the epicenter of the crisis in the United States. I watched in admiration as the health-care team carefully provided high-level inpatient medical care to very ill patients infected with the virus. The other experience was some stunning information I learned while reading a book during the time of my EvergreenHealth visit on Continental Army leadership during the American Revolutionary War. You must be thinking – how could these two things possibly be related?

Let me start with my visit to EvergreenHealth. Well before coronavirus became a household term, the senior leaders at EvergreenHealth quietly and steadfastly worked to prepare for this type of emergency. Of course, like all reputable hospitals, they provided appropriate training for their staff on emergency preparedness. However, the leaders at this hospital – perhaps to a greater extent than at most hospitals – did much more to prepare. What did they do?

Due to a change in leadership, in the months leading up to the pandemic, the leadership team formed the habit of walking around the hospital and engaging with the employees. They made more of an effort to get to know a little about each of them. They proactively made themselves visible and listened to their employees’ concerns. They became more engaged leaders—and more approachable leaders.

Over time, because of these hundreds of seemingly innocuous exchanges, these leaders built stronger relationships with their team members. What happened? A culture of mutual respect and collaboration was created. In short, trust grew up and down the chain of command. Then, unexpectedly, the coronavirus appeared on the world stage. Suddenly infected patients arrived at the hospital. Literally overnight, the staff at EvergreenHealth was treating a host of very ill people—the first hospital in the United States to treat a mass influx of coronavirus-infected patients. How did the hospital team perform? Exceedingly well. The initial contact with the virus was intense and difficult, but the team was never overwhelmed. They made—and continue to make—excellent patient care decisions at every level and work bravely and unselfishly to provide the best care possible.

The bottom line is that over time—several months before a crisis hit—the leaders created high morale, and, when a crisis hit, the team performed at an extraordinary level. This was the deciding factor that allowed the EvergreenHealth team to meet the challenge. In fact, a visiting health-care professional leading a team from an internationally recognized health-care organization sent the following email to the team leaders: “I was amazed at how much the team was able to accomplish in such a quick period of time. I learned a lot from my time with your team and I think you’ll probably quickly find that your group will set the national example for how to get this [proper diagnosis and treatment of coronavirus patients] done as effectively as possible.” (As an example, among many firsts, the EvergreenHealth team established the first successful drive-through coronavirus testing site in the country.)

What could the EvergreenHealth story possibly have to do with Continental Army leadership during the American Revolutionary War?  Actually, a lot. A book that I happened to be reading at the time of my visit to EvergreenHealth was Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army. One striking fact I learned while reading this book is that over the span of the eight-year Revolutionary War (1775–1783), members of the Continental Army were rarely paid, fed, or clothed on a regular basis. Because of this—and not surprisingly—some units simply refused to fight.

They committed mutiny. Why did some units fight while others chose not to? It depended on unit leadership. Those units that believed their leaders cared for their well-being did fight; those that did not chose not to fight.

Interestingly, before the Revolutionary War battles raged, the Continental Army leaders practiced the exact same leadership techniques as the EvergreenHealth leaders. Continental Army leaders were visible leaders—they walked around the campsites and talked with their soldiers. They made an effort to get to know a little about each of them and listened to their concerns. They were engaged leaders – and approachable leaders.

The fact is that all organizations will face crises. Whether a novel infectious disease that suddenly appears on the world stage or the chaos of military battle, the next crisis for your organization could be around the corner. Great leaders prepare for this inevitability by proactively building relationships with their team members. Trust improves and the team performs better. Whether a solider in the eighteenth century or a health-care provider in the twenty-first century, when people know their leaders care for them, they’ll deliver.

This extract is © by Mark Brouker and comes from his book LESSONS FROM THE NAVY: How To Earn Trust, Lead Teams, And Achieve Organizational Excellence published by Rowman & Littlefield. Reprinted with the permission of the author.